Social Networking Accounts: Who controls them after you die?

If State Representative Peter Sullivan of New Hampshire has his way, the executor or administrator of your estate could take control of your social media and other digital accounts after you die.

According to Sullivan, “The way we conduct our business as a society and the way our laws regulate how we communicate as a society have not kept up with technology.”

Since 2005, a few states have enacted their own laws dealing with digital assets after death. However, most of these laws are very weak and only go part of the way toward solving the problem.

And the Uniform Law Commission  last August appointed a committee to draw up a law that would “vest fiduciaries with the authority to access, manage, distribute, copy or delete digital assets and accounts,” according to a draft.

The commission is a nonpartisan group that produces legislative language that can then be introduced and adopted in individual states, with the goal of creating uniform legal standards across state lines.

Sullivan’s bill would ensure that, in New Hampshire at least, the executor of a dead person’s estate “shall have the power, where otherwise authorized, to take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any microblogging or short message service website, or any email service website.”

“This would essentially extend the powers of the administrator or executor of the state to basically step into the shoes of the deceased,” Sullivan said, taking control of the account and making the decision either to continue operating it or shut it down.

Sullivan said he was inspired to file his bill after several high-profile cases of bullying that led to teenagers’ suicides. In some cases, he said, the bullying continued online even after death, and families faced difficulty gaining control of those social-media profiles.

“The law is very vague as to the power of survivors to do something about it,” he said.  His bill, he added, is “going to bring the law up to date.”

Sullivan’s bill (HB 116) went before the State House Judiciary Committee for review this week.

Is everyone in support of this bill?

According to Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation,  “There can be privacy pitfalls, though, to granting posthumous access to digital accounts. I personally don’t want my family to be able to read my email or other private online activity after I die. It’s private for a reason, after all. I’d be pretty suspicious of any bill that doesn’t default to allowing privacy for people even after they passed.”

Whether your state has a digital asset law or not, you can still take a few steps to protect your assets.

1. Make a list of all of your digital assets. The list should include your password for each. If it is easier, think about buying a password tracker like Roboform to handle this for you.

2. Think about what you want someone to do with your digital assets after your death. Who do you want to have access to them when you’re gone? Do you want them destroyed, memorialized, archived or transferred to someone else. It might be a good idea to write a letter concerning this issue and to keep it with your important papers.

3. When you prepare your will, trust and power of attorney documents, include a clause giving your representative authority to access your digital accounts. Even if your state law doesn’t cover the digital world, this clause may help your representative gain access to your accounts and to comply with your wishes.

For more information about this subject and others, go to www.diesmart.com.

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