What Happens to On-Line Accounts After Death
January 19th, 2015 by beasleyferber
As we all know, technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives in ways that could not even have been imagined as short a time as 10 years ago. Most of us, including many Seniors, have e mail, Google accounts and accounts with social media such as Twitter and Facebook. What happens to these accounts when someone dies? An executor only has the authority to manage the property, or assets, of a deceased person. Is an on line account an asset? Does an executor have access to this account? Is the company obligated to turn over user names and passwords to the executor? These days, with such accounts having become pervasive in our lives, such questions are more than just academic. It is our (unconfirmed) understanding that Twitter and Google shut down an account after several months of inactivity, but Facebook does not. It is certainly eerie to be able to connect with a Facebook page of a loved one who has died.
Some states have started to address these issues. No state has yet gone as far as Delaware. Effective January 1, “The Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act” in Delaware attempts to deal with it. This law allows an executor to request access to any of the deceased’s digital accounts or assets. The custodian of such accounts has 60 days to deal with such a request, and, if the request is not honored, the executor can then seek a court order allowing access to the accounts.
Several questions come to mind immediately, such as: What happens if the custodian fails to comply with the court order? Is it really practical, or a good use of estate funds, for an executor to hire attorneys to fight with a giant company with unlimited assets? How would the court order be served on the company in the first place? Are communications, such as e mails or Facebook posts, assets which are subject to probate administration? Should tech companies be required to automatically delete the accounts of deceased persons after a certain period of time?
The State of Delaware is to be commended for attempting to deal with this difficult and important issue. It seems clear,though, that a state-by-state solution could cause more confusion than anything else, and that national legislation is needed to deal with this. We will keep you posted as things develop.