What happens to your Facebook account when you die?
Sadly, my wife passed away in April. Since then, I have made several requests to have her Facebook account turned into a memorial page. I would prefer this to deleting her account as it will provide a place for people to leave messages and memories – and especially for my sons, aged nine and 13.
Whenever I fill out the Facebook form, it advises me that someone will be in touch with me soon, but I have never heard anything from them. I can’t see anywhere where I can get any help from Facebook with this problem.
I have tried contacting Facebook via their feedback form, and on Twitter. Do you know of any way I can get Facebook to respond to my request? Simon
Perhaps having their lack-of-service highlighted by the Guardian will prompt somebody at Facebook to respond, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Either way, you’re right: there is no way for the average user – or even the average journalist – to talk to Facebook. The only thing you can do is repeat the process, as you have done, until it eventually gets through the system.
Web-based companies with more than a billion users, such as Facebook and Google, rely on machines, and sometimes on cheap labour in places like the Philippines, as described in a recent article in Wired. Facebook has a “team that reviews memorialisation requests,” so I would assume this is similarly outsourced.
Facebook suggests that you provide “a link to an obituary or other documentation about the death”. The form says this is optional but I would strongly recommend providing convincing evidence. If you don’t, Facebook will tend to err on the side of caution, because of the risk that a request could be malign, a juvenile prank or simply mistaken.
Dealing with requests may be a significant problem for Facebook, and one that will grow rapidly as more older users sign up. Based on calculations by Nathan Lustig of Entrustet (taken over by SecureSafe), more than 3 million Facebook users will die this year, which is about 60,000 a week. If it really takes Facebook more than six months to “memorialise” one account, then its process is not up to the task.
If no one contacts Facebook, or if Facebook fails to respond, the account will remain active indefinitely. The main risk is that it might be hacked and used to send spam, or worse.
Delete or memorialise
There are two options: you can get Facebook to delete your late wife’s account or to memorialise it.
If you choose to delete the account, then all the comments, photos etc will also be deleted, unless you take legal steps to preserve them. This is a privacy issue. Facebook says: “The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order.”
If you choose memorialisation, Facebook changes a number of things:
• No one is allowed to log in to the account
• You can’t change, add to or delete existing content, which includes adding or removing friends
• Automated activities, such as daily quotes or horoscopes, are stopped
• Memorialised accounts don’t appear in “public spaces” such as birthday reminders, People You May Know, or searches
• Memorialised accounts can only be accessed by the user’s confirmed friends
However, the original content stays in place. Also, Facebook adds, “depending on the privacy settings of the deceased person’s account, friends can share memories on the memorialised Timeline”.
If you have access to your late wife’s account, you could hide or remove some content, including any inappropriate posts that might have appeared on her wall. But this is risky. First, Facebook says: “it is always a violation of our policies to log into another person’s account”. Second, Facebook will not delete active accounts. Any account activity after the reported date of death will obviously look suspicious.
Although you could set up a separate memorial page, you would have to spend time managing it. Memorialisation removes that burden. However, to be effective, the memorialisation process has to be quick. In that context, a six-month wait looks unacceptable.
It’s presumably not just Facebook: most people have several personal accounts of various sorts, and some people have dozens. The most common ones are email services such as Gmail and Hotmail/Outlook, messaging services such as WhatsApp and Skype, and shopping services such as Amazon and eBay. There are many others, including Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Dropbox. PCs and smartphones may also be protected with passwords.
It could take a lot of time to deal with all of these accounts, especially as most of them don’t seem to have a process like Facebook’s.
If you want your spouse or other family members to deal with your digital stuff after you’ve gone, it’s a good idea to make a list of the log-on names, passwords, and associated email addresses. You could put the details in a letter, but it would be better to use an encrypted file and leave the password with someone you trust. Conversely, there may be sites and/or services that you don’t want family members to access. In which case, don’t store the details in an accessible web browser, but use a secure password manager instead.
There are a number of online companies that will store this kind of information. These include Legacy Locker/Password Box, Securesafe’s Data Inheritance, Asset Lock, and Cirrus Legacy, but I’m not sure they are necessary. Otherwise, a blog post by US-based Anderson Elder Law, Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets in Your Estate Planning, provides some useful advice.
You can leave instructions with an executor, but don’t put password details in a traditional British will. When a will goes to probate, it becomes a public record.