You have spent years building your digital self. So what happens to that digital self when you die?
Your Digital Self
People tend to think of assets as physical possession, such as real estate and cars; or in terms of money, whether it be bank accounts, stock, etc. In the modern information age, however, we have digital footprints whether we intend to or not, and it is increasingly becoming more complicated to avoid.
Facebook is a good example of the voluntary digital footprint. People identify themselves by or with their Facebook status, posts, and page, and update these things on a regular basis. It is an account like any other account and worth protecting from unauthorized users. However, what happens when you no longer can maintain it due to your own death. At this point nobody is legally authorized to access the account, make changes, or shut down the page.
Facebook now allows users to establish a “legacy contact”. According to Facebook website, a legacy contact is someone you designate to monitor your account if it’s memorialized, which is a special account designation by Facebook that remembers you by preserving your profile instead of deleting it. Facebook has instructions on how to create a legacy contact on its website.
Once your account is memorialized, your legacy contact can then: write a pinned post for your profile (ex: to share a final message on your behalf or provide information about a memorial service, respond to new friend requests (ex: old friends or family members who weren’t yet on Facebook), or update your profile picture and cover photo, or download a copy of what you’ve shared on Facebook.
Per Facebook the legacy contact cannot log into your account, remove or change past posts, photos and other things shared on your Timeline, read messages you’ve sent to other friends, or remove any of your friends.
Assuming that a legacy contact is not established – and many people are not aware of it – there may not be legal recourse to have changes made post mortem, and your Facebook page could continue on indefinitely.
Facebook is used an example here but is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social media or other digital presences. In fact, so much of our daily lives involved so-called “digital assets”, from social media sites, to banking, to shopping, to email. So how do your trusted loved ones access all of these assets after your death? Personal representatives normally are allowed to access online accounts that are tied to non-digital assets, such as bank accounts that represent financial assets. But when accounts are strictly digital, such as Facebook or email, the issue is more complex and the law has not yet caught up.
A Michigan House Bill introduced in 2012 by State Representative Mark Meadows, 2012-HIB-5929, seeks to amend the Estate and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC)  by adding a new section giving personal representatives (executors) in Michigan the explicit power to “take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate, and account of the decedent on a social networking, microblogging or short message service, or electronic mail service website.” EPIC specifically grants a set of statutory powers authorized to personal representatives. While all of these powers are in a single section, they wholly or singly do not encompass the powers proposed in the new Bill. This seems to be an easy addition to personal representative powers in Michigan but has been pending for three years now. Michigan is behind some other states who have already enacted such laws. GJR
- MCL 700.1101 to 700.8206.
- MCL 700.3715.