What To Do When Someone Dies: Online Accounts

No amount of funeral planning can prevent the time needed to close accountsIn our modern Internet age, there are multiple places where we interact and communicate online. From standard email accounts and Facebook to Foursquare and Twitter, an individual can juggle as many as several dozen online accounts at one time. And when an unexpected death occurs, this can leave several loose ends that need to be tied up before you can finally say your goodbyes.

No amount of funeral planning will prepare you to handle the numerous different online accounts left open after a death. If you are estate planning or making a will, it is a good idea to make a list of all the online accounts you have as well as the usernames and passwords necessary to access them. This list can be left with a trusted family member or even as part of your will, to become the responsibility of the Will Executor upon your death.

Popular Online Accounts to Close

Email Accounts: Many people have multiple email accounts from multiple providers, and it will be your job to contact each one. Companies like Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, and other popular email providers have policies in place that you must follow in order to access the deceased’s account. In some cases, this is as simple as getting permission from the right authority; in others (as is the case with Gmail), you must provide a copy of the
death certificate as well as proof of your authority, most often a power of attorney order, an executor’s testament, or even a court order. Yahoo restrictions are even greater, and you may not ever be able to access the email at all. At best, you can get them to close the account and provide you with a hard copy of the email contents. In any of the cases, this can take months to finalize, and you may be facing quite a bit of legal paperwork in the process.

Part of our ongoing series:

What To Do When Someone Dies

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For more information on each type of account:

Hotmail
Gmail
Yahoo

Instant Messaging: Most instant messaging accounts are linked to the big names like Google and Yahoo, so the same death policies apply. Be prepared to show documents and proof of death in order to gain access to the deceased’s information.

Facebook:
The current Facebook policy regarding the death of a family member is to “memorialize” the account, a process by which certain private information is removed from public view, and the page becomes accessible only to confirmed friends. You may also eventually be able to close the account entirely. However, this process isn’t streamlined, and proving that you are authorized to memorialize the account may take several attempts at contacting Facebook authorities. Their form for more information can be found at http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=deceased.

MySpace: MySpace has a very similar process to that of Facebook, and you’ll need a death certificate in addition to proof of authority. For more info, visit them at http://www.myspace.com/help and look up “How can I delete or access a deceased user’s profile?”

Twitter:
Twitter has strict privacy policies, and will rarely allow users to access the account of someone who is deceased without a death certificate, power of attorney, a court order, or an executor’s testament. There is also no firm policy in place for contacting the proper Twitter authorities, so you have to contact their support department and get in touch with someone who can help you. In most cases, you can get the account closed fairly easily, but may encounter some difficulties accessing the private DMs and account settings. Visit the Twitter support page for more information.

What Are My First Steps?

Funeral planning and online accounts1) Discover what accounts will need to be closed. The best way to do this is to go over the email accounts you do have access to, looking for the confirmations typically sent out when a user signs up for a new website. A Google search of the deceased’s name is also a great way to investigate. Any accounts should appear on the first few pages of the search engine.

2) Determine how necessary it is to get access to certain accounts. Do you really need to sort through and read all the emails and Twitter correspondence, or can you simply cancel the account and move on? It is much easier to close an account than it is to be given full access to it.

3) Get access to email first. Typically, once you have access to email, you can access many other types of accounts. You can look through the archives to find username and password confirmations, or you might even be able to send “yourself” the lost passwords for the necessary accounts.

4) Don’t close the email account—at least not right away. Many types of accounts (social media sites, banks, even just regular newsletter updates) will continue sending emails. These may help you determine what additional accounts need to be closed in the future, as well as help you sort through the necessary correspondence. Be prepared to close the email eventually, but it’s important not to rush into it.

5) Determine where the automatic debits are coming from. Netflix.com, Pandora.com, Audible.com, and many other types of websites take automatic debits from a financial account in order to access their services. If you don’t close these accounts in a timely manner, the deceased’s finances could continue being depleted for services he or she obviously no longer requires. You can use both the email account and the bank account to determine where regular payments are being made.

6) Because there are so many different kinds of online accounts, and because there are new ones popping up all the time, you may want to bookmark the Digital Executor Toolbox. This resource provides a list of online accounts (everything from ebay and Match.com to YouTube) and information on how to contact the right authorities to close the accounts.

7) Be prepared to be patient. It will take time to track down all the open accounts and systematically close them all. The good news is that unless there is a credit card or bank account linked to the account, no lasting harm will be done by leaving it open. Social media sites and blogs can also be a great way to find a show of support online; it’s not uncommon for an outpouring of grief to make its way forward if you simply make a Twitter or Facebook announcement of a loved one’s passing.

Online accounts are the type of things that can snowball if you don’t address them soon after your loved one passes away. Fees, automatic notifications, and emails can pile up and become a bigger nuisance than they have to be. In an ideal world, you will have a list of usernames and passwords that will give you the access you need. However, if funeral planning wasn’t a possibility, there is still hope of getting rid of the continual online presence of those who have passed on.

Our next post in this series will be released on Friday January 28, 2011 and will be about what to do about Social Security and other government agencies.

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