Today, people utilize the Internet and social media more than ever before, raising new issues for estate administration. Many people receive bank, credit card, and utility statements electronically, and practically everyone has a Facebook account. Electronic mail and Facebook may hold important information for a personal representative seeking to administer an estate.¹ Obtaining access to that information, however, is a brand new area in probate law.
In some cases, the personal representative may know the password to the decedent’s email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. In these cases, accessing bills and statements as they come in is relatively easy. But is a personal representative² authorized to access these accounts? In situations where the personal representative does not know the password, how can they obtain it?
After death, the only person who is legally authorized to access a decedent’s email and social media accounts is their personal representative. Of course, knowing the decedent’s password makes accessing email accounts relatively easy. If the personal representative knows the password, he or she can log in to the decedent’s account, access the information necessary to administer the estate (such as bank and credit card statements), and simply delete the account when the administration is complete.
Accessing email accounts without knowing the password involves a few more steps. The personal representative should contact the decedent’s email provider to obtain the password. To ensure privacy, email providers require that the personal representative provide his or her contact information, a certified copy of the death certificate³, and an original short certificate4 evidencing the personal representative or executor’s appointment. Some internet providers, like Gmail, also require a copy of an email sent from the decedent to the personal representative. Once this information is verified, Gmail currently requires the personal representative to obtain a court order authorizing access to the decedent’s email.5
Facebook and Twitter have slightly different options than simply accessing a decedent’s account. Facebook offers the option of “memorializing” a decedent’s account. This keeps the profile active, but removes some personal information and denotes that the user is deceased. Some family members prefer this option as a way of keeping in touch with the decedent’s friends and loved ones, as well as offering a place for the decedent’s friends to post messages or memorials to the deceased. This is the easiest option for informing Facebook of a death.
Shutting down a decedent’s Facebook or Twitter profile is a bit more complicated. Facebook and Twitter require the personal representative contact their customer service department, and locating this information is not easy. Once the personal representative locates this information, Facebook and Twitter require the personal representative’s contact information, a copy of their driver’s license, a certified copy of the death certificate, and a short certificate. This information must be sent to Facebook’s or Twitter’s headquarters for processing. Such requests can take weeks or months to process.
Due to the increased importance of email and social media you should consider informing your nominated personal representative about the various types of statements, bills, or automatic deductions that are sent electronically. Having this information will make the estate administration much easier. One option that our firm provides our clients is the ability to add these passwords to his or her personal Summary, which includes the location of all assets and contact information for key people. This provides the personal representative with information that makes their task much easier, less time consuming and less expensive.
Social Media and Estate Planning is a fast evolving area of the law. The issues discussed in this article are current as of September 2012, but new questions are being raised daily and various answers are being debated and implemented for each question. As this are of Estate Planning law evolves, we will keep you informed.
Throughout our website, klenklaw.com, you may find more information about estate planning issues, probate issues and many other estate planning tools. Our firm focuses exclusively in the area of estate planning, probate, and the litigation surrounding estate planning and probate including Will Contests and Will Challenges. If you have an estate planning question, please call one of our Experienced Estate Planning Lawyers for a free consultation. We practice throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota and Florida.
¹ For example, many people no longer have address books and instead use Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family. Without access to the deceased’s Facebook account getting the word out about the deceased’s death would be difficult.
² In this article I will use the word Personal Representative to indicate the person appointed by the state to represent the deceased’s estate. In some states this person is called the Executor and in some situations, the Administrator.
³ In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York or Florida the death certificate is usually obtained from the funeral director but it may also be obtained from the Department of Vital Statistics either by ordering online or in person.
4 The Short Certificate is an abbreviated form provided to the Executor, Personal Representative or Administrator. In Pennsylvania, this is obtained from the Register of Wills. In New Jersey, New York and Florida this form is obtained by from the Surrogate.
5 For example, if the deceased had been a resident of Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the executor would need an order from the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court. If the deceased had been a resident of Ocean City, Cape May County, New Jersey, the personal representative would have to obtain an order from the Cape May County Surrogates’ Court.