Decide Who Controls Your Facebook Account When You Die


It is inevitable. One day, you're scrolling through Facebook looking at photos of friends and old classmates and you see posts like:

"I can't believe you're gone, John Doe!"

"John, I just saw you last week and you looked so happy."

You might not have thought about John Doe in days, months or years, but now, John is gone and you learned about it on Facebook. You click on John's name and see the numerous comments from his loved ones and you look through his profile and other photos. I've always felt weird about how this goes down. There are a lot of angles I could take with this (because there are sooooo many legal and ethical issues revolving around these things commonly called "digital assets"), but the very narrow point of this post is to help you tell Facebook who should control your account when you die using its "legacy contact" service.

What are your current Facebook profile and cover photos? If you died tomorrow, are these photos the way you'd want to live on forever in Facebook history? Would you want your Facebook contacts to have information about your funeral/memorial service? If so, who would you want to post that kind of information?

Credit: Jessica H. Lee

Credit: Jessica H. Lee

I know this is kind of depressing to think about, but this is a part of your life now. If you have a social media presence, you have a digital asset that has to be considered part of your property when you die, just like the money in your bank account, clothes in your closet, or your house and car. Thinking about how you want your assets handled in the event of your death has to include your social media presences. 

I've seen this happen sometimes and wondered if the recently-deceased person would have wanted their club photo, funny meme, or whatever random picture they had recently selected to be their profile photo forever and always. I've also wondered what happens when a deceased person gets new friend requests after they die.

The easiest thing to do while you're alive is leave your usernames, passwords, and instructions with someone in writing (which I would highly encourage). Most people don't think of doing this though. Even if you do have a will, trust, or something else, your social media usernames and passwords probably aren't listed there.

This twenty-first century question about death has had some tough challenges in recent history. Facebook has, in the past, been quite slow and unresponsive when it comes to dealing with issues of death. A few years ago, one family was embroiled in a fight with Facebook over the account information of their minor son who committed suicide. The son had not left anyone his passwords and his parents were searching for answers about his death. Facebook resisted for some time before finally sending some of their son's information via CD. Another dad, who had lost his adult son, sent an emotional plea to Facebook requesting his deceased son's "A Look Back" video, a feature which made short three-minute slideshows of personalized, past photos. The dad only received a reply from Facebook after getting hundreds of thousands of views and likes for his heart-wrenching video (he had apparently tried to reach out to Facebook via email but didn't get a reply).

Facebook has created a limited solution to this problem. About two years ago, the company created something called the legacy contact. According to the Facebook Help Center,

A legacy contact is someone you choose to look after your account if it's memorialized. Once your account is memorialized, your legacy contact will have the option to do things like:
  • Write a pinned post for your profile (ex: to share a final message on your behalf or provide information about a memorial service)
  • Respond to new friend requests (ex: old friends or family members who weren't yet on Facebook)
  • Update your profile picture and cover photo

You can also allow your legacy contact to download a copy of what you've shared on Facebook. If you do this, your legacy contact will receive:

  • Photos and videos you uploaded
  • Wall posts
  • Profile and contact info
  • Events
  • Friends list

The legacy contact has strict restrictions though.

Your legacy contact can't:
  • Log into your account
  • Remove or change past posts, photos and other things shared on your Timeline
  • Read your messages
  • Remove any of your friends

To identify your legacy contact, go to Settings > Security>Legacy Contact. You can choose one of your Facebook friends to serve as your legacy contact. The service will give you the option of sending your legacy contact a pre-written message that explains the policy. 

When you do this, you will also have the option of allowing your legacy contact to download a copy of what you've shared on Facebook, including posts, photos, videos and info from the "About" section of your profile. Messages won't be included. If you don't want a Facebook account after you die, you can request to have your account permanently deleted instead.

This short post is just an FYI. Even if you don't want to leave your full Facebook usernames/passwords with anyone, you can (and probably should) designate a legacy contact. If you don't, your loved ones can request special access through this Special Request for Deceased Person's Account form, but the company could always reject that request.

I hate to be depressing so close to the holiday season, but this is important information. It is hard enough to deal with the death of a loved one. You can make it a little bit easier by making this decision now.