For Barbara Hoekstra, social media has become such a critical part of life that she's put her passwords among the information she wants her loved ones to have when she dies.
Hoekstra, 67, visits Facebook three to four times a day to check in with 400-plus friends, help coordinate her high school's 50th reunion and share travel photos. But she doesn't want her profile page to linger when she's no longer around to control it.
"I'm online way too much," concedes Hoekstra, who has even used Facebook to find and meet others who share her name. "I do my banking online, make reservations. And I have thought about what will happen to those accounts with my demise."
The Garden Spot Village resident has listed her log-in information - encrypted of course - along with her pension and health insurance details in a spreadsheet only her sister knows how to access.
With nearly half of all American seniors now using social media to stay connected with friends and family, determining what happens to their interactive pages has taken on new urgency. This year, usa.gov added social media advice to its official guidance on writing a will.
None of the seniors interviewed for this article has written a formal social media will, but resources are available to help guide online users through the process. And the guidance isn't just intended for seniors. Anyone with a strong online presence could die suddenly, leaving their personal pages to be turned into memorials or taken over by a well-meaning relative.
That's what happened in the case of Carol Cormany's son-in-law, who died after a brief illness at the age of 39. His Facebook profile is still active four years later.
"I'm really glad it is," says Cormany, who also lives at Garden Spot Village. "Sometimes you want to say something to someone who's passed away. It's busy around birthdays and holidays, but it's mainly for family members."
Though Cormany enjoys following the lives of her nieces and nephews on Facebook and tracks her genealogy through Family Tree Maker, she doesn't want her own pages to outlive her.
"It will be time to let them go," she says, though she admits she hasn't made any plans to ensure their shutdown.
According to a Pew Internet study released in August, 43 percent of people age 65 and older now use at least one social networking site, with Facebook their most likely option. Facebook itself offers an app, called If I Die, that allows users to leave behind a video or note upon their passing. Dead Social allows the scheduling of certain post-mortem messages via Twitter, Facebook and Google . But those tools only extend your voice; they can't make informed decisions about how long you want your pages to remain viable.
Jeffrey Goss, a Lancaster attorney specializing in elder law, routinely advises clients to designate someone to take care of their online activity when they can't. He says that person may need to be different from, and many times younger than, a regular executor because they will need to be familiar with Internet uses.
Pennsylvania, Goss says, does not legally recognize wills that provide executors with power to handle digital data. A bill proposed in the legislature has not yet become law. Even when wishes are in writing, the terms of service agreed to for a specific website could override them.
"There is the law of the land, and then there are the rules of the provider," Goss says.
In addition to having log-in information, digital executors will sometimes also need a death certificate to close or modify sites. Goss sees the issue becoming more complicated in the future, as online assets such as domain names become more valuable.
The experts say it's important to think about who will want which of your electronic files - and whether you actually want them to have them.
Bill Buehler, 73, wants to see his Facebook page go dark when he dies. For files he wants others to be able to access, he has begun storing them in a public "drop box" or using Google Groups, which allows all invited members to access previous conversations.
Goss began lending advice on social wills around 2010, when a client died leaving behind "a significant number" of unknown passwords that would have helped his family connect with his business contacts.
But there may also be a financial threat to leaving existing sites active but unmonitored. Sites like Facebook and Yahoo! are valuable to thieves, as well as marketers. Some people use their social network passwords to sign into daily deal sites, such as Groupon, or use Facebook itself it to buy instant birthday gifts with a credit card. That means financial information could be attached to an account even after death.
"The failure to address who is responsible for closing your social media outlets and online information can create real harm to your family," Goss says. "This harm can come in the form of identify theft, where executors are dealing with pursuing unauthorized transactions after your death ... or cases where a loved one's digital information leads an Internet predator to obtain personal information about the family."
Goss says he has also had cases in which children used a parent's PayPal account to make purchases after the parent died.
Cormany already worries about protecting her privacy. It's another reason she'll ask family to close both her social media and photo-sharing pages upon her death.
"There's nothing on there they don't already have," she says.
Follow these tips from usa.gov to help ensure your online presence ends the way you want it to:
nCreate a statement outlining how you would like your online identity to be handled. Do you want new messages posted to your accounts by someone else? Should word of your death be shared online? Or do you just want your pages to go dark?
nAppoint a trusted person to serve as an online executor, who will be responsible for controlling email addresses, social media profiles, blogs or photo sites. Provide the individual with a list of sites used, as well as usernames and passwords.
nReview the privacy policies and the terms and conditions of websites where you have a presence. Some, such as Facebook, allow executors to deactivate but "memorialize" a page; others, including Yahoo!, only allow for complete termination at death.
Visit usa.gov/topics/money/personal-finance/wills.shtml for more tips and to download a social media will template.
(c) 2013 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
Original headline: Social Media Users:What's To Become Of Your Accounts After Your Death? ; Tips For Writing Social Media Wills
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