Handling online identities and information after death

Virginia was the first state to address concerns about the personal privacy rights of a deceased person’s digital identity and content.

Virginia residents who wonder about what happens to their email accounts, social media accounts and more after they die have good reason to be concerned. The thought that online identities and content can remain forever may be unsettling. Equally disconcerting can be the thought that someone else can gain control of an account after death, exposing content or activity that a person wished to maintain as private. How should this be handled?

Virginia law attempts to strike a balance

In the 2015 legislative session, Virginia lawmakers passed a law that was the first of its kind in the United States, titled the Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act. CBS Washington reports that this law is intended to address concerns about accounts needing attention without violating individual privacy rights.

An executor of a deceased person's estate will be able to gain some access to online accounts but the information available will be limited. First of all, only account information covering the 18 months prior to a person's death will be provided. Second, only date and time stamp details for email accounts will be provided. No actual message content will be disclosed. The point of the law is to allow an executor to find out about any accounts requiring action to settle an estate, not to pry into the personal life of the decedent.

If an individual expressly wishes an executor or another party to have more access than what the law provides, this may be able to be done via other estate planning documentation. It would require the express consent of the individual before death.

According to the Virginia Legislative Information Services, accounts such as blogs, social media and email are among those to be covered by the new law. Providers or companies must give appropriate details to representatives or executors unless a will or trust stipulates otherwise.

The need for legislation is great

A study conducted by Microsoft in 2007 indicated that the average American had 25 different online accounts. By the end 2016, it is easy to think that this number could be even higher. Every company has its own rules regarding how to handle content housed on its servers after a person dies. Those rules may or may not be what a person wishes to have happen.

With the need to protect personal privacy while also allowing access to appropriately manage one's estate, Virginia residents should consult with an attorney while they are still healthy and alive. Including provisions for digital assets and content in estate planning documentation is very important and should be done with proper legal assistance.