The Government Would Like You to Write a 'Social Media Will'

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Planning for your digital life after your physical life is no longer a strange niche behavior.

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By some estimates, nearly a half a million people with Facebook accounts passed away last year, leaving family and friends to navigate what to do with those pages. Leave the account open? Shut it down entirely? Convert it to an official Facebook memorial page? What would you want for your own Facebook profile? And forget Facebook, what do you want to become of your email account?

If you want any say in such matters, you might want to consider creating a social-media will, as the US government is now recommending as part of its advice on estate planning. As per their blog:

If you have social media profiles set up online, you should create a statement of how you would like your online identity to be handled. Just like a traditional will helps your survivors handle your physical belongings, a social media will spells out how you want your online identity to be handled.

Like with a traditional will, you'll need to appoint someone you trust as an online executor. This person will be responsible for closing your email addresses, social media profiles, and blogs after you are deceased.

Sounds good, but legally it's tricky territory. As Naomi Cahn, a professor of law at George Washington University, explained to me, "Formal wills become public. So you need to be careful what you put in a will, because anyone in the world could have access to it." Instead, you might want to consider establishing a trust or just an informal agreement with information about your passwords and how you would like your accounts to be handled. 

A further complication is that people's social-media and other online accounts are not static, nor are their passwords. Cahn says that the average person has 25 password-protected accounts and types about eight passwords a day. Most people will likely not be able to keep their "social-media wills" up to date on that many accounts.

Planning for the care of your online trail post-mortem presents different issues than planning for money and physical objects. In part this is because our legal regimes and social norms are less solidified in these areas, and, in part because they are actually different animals: A Facebook account can become a participatory memorial that many friends and family can return to over the years, in a way that's not true of your physical belongings. But despite their differences -- or, perhaps, because of them -- they each require their own plans for after you go.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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