In a sign of the digital times, the explosion of social media participation is prompting states to update their probate laws in an attempt to keep up with technology. To that end, more and more states are grappling with laws giving executors and personal representatives authority to access the social media accounts of deceased loved ones.
This is a no-brainer, and is something that will eventually be part of every person’s estate plan in some way, shape or form.
But just as the law begins to get a handle on certain aspects of social media and digital assets, here comes the curveball: new technology that lets a person continue to post to their social media accounts even after they die.
What is a social media afterlife?
As reported in an article by Heather Kelly on CNN (“How to post to Facebook, Twitter after you die”):
People have long left letters for loved ones (and the rare nemesis) with estate lawyers to be delivered after death. But a new crop of startups will handle sending prewritten e-mails and posting to Facebook or Twitter once a person passes. One company is even toying with a service that tweets just like a specific person after they are gone.
One of those companies, called DeadSocial, is a free service that allows you to set up and schedule messages that will then be distributed to your social media accounts after you die. In order to actually release the message(s) at the right time, you must assign someone you trust as executor.
According to the DeadSocial website, the service can be used to:
1. Send messages directly to your private Facebook, Twitter & Linkedin account
2. Send out a final message and / or a series of scheduled messages
3. Release unseen video and audio messages
There’s also If I Die, a similar site launched in 2011:
if I die is the first and only facebook application that enables you to create a video or text message that will only be published after you die.
And finally, _LivesOn, currently in development, hopes to learn your Twitter style while you are alive so it can continue to send out Tweets in your voice after you’re gone. _LivesOn uses artificial intelligence to learn about your likes, dislikes, tastes and syntax with the ultimate goal of mimicking your Twitter personality and Tweeting as your alter ego when you die.
Estate planning and your social media afterlife
Up until now, the efforts at the state level have been dedicated to ensuring that personal representatives and surviving family members can access their deceased loved ones’ accounts so that they could eventually close or memorialize them.
It will be interesting to see how the law evolves alongside this highly competitive and rapidly changing digital marketplace. Right now, it appears that these companies (at least) all require the potential zombie to name an “executor” who will activate their loved one’s digital afterlife when the time comes.
If that is the case, then services like these would be analogous to assets that pass outside of probate, such as jointly owned property and life insurance policies with named beneficiaries. But even then, the potential zombie should at least name a successor just in case the digital executor dies first.
The bottom line is to make sure all of your estate planning documents work together so that any gaps can be filled without having to play guessing games every time something unexpected comes up. While some state legislatures are starting to get the importance of bringing their probate laws into the 21st century, the lawmaking process itself is slow. So in the interests of your family, don’t forget to include instructions for your digital assets in your estate plan.