By Christine DiGangi
Today I sent a somewhat awkward Facebook message to my husband. It ended like this: “Have fun managing my Facebook when I die! Hugs.”
His reply: “K.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do a will these days.
Facebook (FB) released a new security feature allowing users to designate a “legacy contact” who will have the ability to manage your Facebook account in the event of your death. Previously, friends and family could request Facebook designate the profile as a memorialized account, but no one could make changes to it. The legacy contact, once they have notified Facebook of someone’s passing, would be able to manage friend requests, change profile and cover photos and write posts to stay at the top of the page (for example, details for a memorial service). You can also choose to have Facebook permanently delete your account when you die — all it takes is checking a box in your security settings.
“I think it’s wonderful that they’ve done that,” said Stanley Brooks, a Massachusetts attorney specializing in estate planning. He strongly recommends people include instructions in their wills for how to manage their online accounts after death. “It’s something which is definitely easier and much more manageable for people, but I don’t think it takes place of proper language in a dual power of attorney or a will.”
The growth of social media has added some complexity to managing someone’s assets after they die. Few people ever get around to drafting wills in the first place — multiple surveys in the last few years say less than half of 55- to 64-year-olds have wills, and even fewer younger people do — and they typically don’t provide instructions for what to do with social media accounts. That can leave your online presence — your social assets — vulnerable to identity thieves and hackers.
A ‘Will’ Via Account Settings
Given the statistics, it seems unlikely that many Facebook users have wills, but with this feature, people can take care of bequeathing at least one corner of their lives. For people who think drawing up a will seems morbid, perhaps changing a few preferences on Facebook will be less intimidating. It’s simple, even if it is a little weird.
It’ll be interesting to see if other social networks — or any other service provider — follow Facebook’s lead and integrate legacy directives into account settings. There are risks: You could forget to update your contact in the event that your relationship with that person changes, that person leaves Facebook or dies before you do.
There’s also the concern that someone could abuse this privilege before you die — all it takes to request a memorial page is to tell Facebook who died and give an approximate date of death.
How Facebook Reviews Requests
“We have a rigorous process for memorializing accounts starting with a team dedicated to reviewing requests, and we also ask for verification of death -– a news article, obituary, etc.,” Jodi Seth, a Facebook spokeswoman, wrote in an email to Credit.com. The proof of death field is marked optional on the memorialization request page. “We also look at other indicators to ensure we are not only memorializing the right page, but that we are not inaccurately memorializing accounts. We have a very low occurrence of inaccurately memorializing accounts.”
Choosing a legacy contact prompts you to send that person a message — weirdest Facebook message I’ve ever sent — but you have the option of clicking “not now” when that message pops up. If you don’t notify your legacy contact ahead of time, they’ll receive notification upon your death, presumably after someone has requested your profile be memorialized.
There’s a lot to consider when making end-of-life plans, many of which revolve around the financial situation you leave behind. For example, if you’re in charge of household finances, will someone know how to pay the bills if something happens to you? You also need to think about what happens to your debts after you die. You can’t manage all those instructions via social media, but perhaps this is the start of a new estate-planning era.
If this catches on, prepare yourself: Your inbox might soon fill up with some strange “if I die…” messages.
Christine DiGangi covers personal finance for Credit.com. Previously, she managed communications for the Society of Professional Journalists, served as a copy editor of The New York Times News Service and worked as a reporter for the Oregonian and the News & Record.Download