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Facebook's 'legacy contact': Do you need a social-media heir?

As of today, Facebook users will be able to designate a 'legacy contact' via the site's security page.

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    FILE - In this March 15, 2013, file photo,
    A Facebook employee walks past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif, in 2013. Facebook is giving more options to decide what happens to users’ accounts after they die. The world’s biggest online social network will now let users pick a trusted contact who can manage their account or elect to have the account deleted, the company announced, Thursday. (AP Photo/
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Your Facebook profile could outlive even you, thanks to a new “legacy contact” feature available to users today.

However, some estate planners say users should think long and hard before choosing who will take care of their online persona.

As of today, users in the US will be able to create a will of sorts for their account by choosing whether it is deleted after they pass away, or to designate a "legacy contact" via the site's security page.

Bereaved legacy contacts must log into their own Facebook account and provides the name, death date, and a link to the obituary of the deceased. Once verified, the account is then officially “memorialized.”

The word “remembering” will be shown next to the departed's name on their profile.

Many may be relieved to learn that being a legacy contact doesn’t mean having access to the deceased’s private messages or chats.

What it does allow is for the legacy to change the former user’s photo, accept friend requests, and post announcements once Facebook receives and processes the “memorialization request.”

Facebook also offers the option to let your legacy contact download a file containing all the photos, posts, and other information the deceased posted on Facebook during his or her life.

This means that photos, artwork, and writings that may not have initially been posted publicly will fall under control of the legacy contact's account.

“We always advise out clients to consider their digital accounts and the decision of who to make your ‘legacy contact’ is one that deserves some serious thought,” says Anthony Handal, of Handal and Morofsky, a firm in New York and Connecticut specializing in intellectual property, digital rights, and estate planning, in an interview. “If you are involved in any field involving art, music, writing, film, or photography you need to be very mindful when making this choice.”

Mr. Handal recommends, “Whoever you choose to handle your estate should also be your ‘legacy contact.’”

“While I really don’t think this will become a major issue, there’s no accounting for what people may do,” he says. “However, if you’re not careful and you have one heir as the executor of your estate but put someone else in charge of your digital media it can cause conflict that nobody needs during the grieving process.”

In 2013 the Pew Research Center tackled the question of what happens to our social media accounts after we die, noting that, “The typical web user has 25 online accounts, ranging from email to social media profiles and bank accounts, according to a 2007 study from Microsoft. But families, companies, and legislators are just starting to sort out who owns and has access to these accounts after someone has died.”

However, as the Facebook population ages it seems appropriate for the platform to find solutions to dealing with potential issues.

According to a Pew study released on January 9, 71% of online adults use Facebook, a proportion unchanged from August 2013. Usage among seniors continues to increase. Some 56% of internet users ages 65 and older now use Facebook, up from 45% in 2013.

Michelle Parker, an estate planning attorney at The Decker Law Firm in Norfolk, Virginia says in an interview that some might potentially misconstrue the control of someone’s Facebook property as legal ownership.

“Actually, I think this is a can of worms they just opened up because the law has not caught up with this kind of potential transfer of intellectual property rights.”

Previously, Facebook only offered the option to freeze accounts after death, but there was no way to set them up to be managed by someone else or automatically deleted.

The issue of digital account control, specifically social media, after a loved one’s death came up in Virginia in 2013 when a couple seeking answers after their 15-year-old son’s suicide realized they couldn’t access his Facebook account.

Hence, Virginia became one of a growing number of states that have passed laws governing the digital accounts of the deceased. The website EverPlans offers digital estate planning laws by state. The list is sparse.

One additional feature of the Memorialization of an account is that the deceased’s profiles don't appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know, ads, or birthday reminders.

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