Lawyers are encouraging social media users to include instructions in their wills about what should become of their online personas when they die.
Wills are the only legally binding way to manage what happens to email, music, photos, videos and social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter in the event of death, they say.
"If the will is silent the big question is, are the social media materials actually assets? The answer to that is 'we don't know'," Lowndes Jordan partner and Netsafe chair Rick Shera said.
He said a site left intact could be awkward, especially where someone had thousands of Facebook friends who might not know the person had died.
"You can have Facebook friends still posting comments like, 'How are you?' For years later you can have people still sending happy birthday messages. It can be quite upsetting [for family]," Shera said.
He was recently invited to connect with former 2degrees chief executive Eric Hertz on social media site LinkedIn, after Hertz and his wife were killed in a plane crash in March.
"If I hadn't thought about it and said I'd like to connect, that could have been quite upsetting for the family members monitoring it."
One of Shera's clients instructed that his Facebook and Twitter accounts be removed when he died, but a copy made for the family to view like a personal diary.
The client also left his master password for the password storage site LastPass, which would enable the executors to access all his social media and cloud storage.
People needed to be proactive in protecting themselves, Shera said, as privacy no longer applied when someone died and their most intimate photos or comments could become open slather. Contacting social media providers to change account ownership could take several days without a password, Shera said.
BUT YOUR WORDS LIVE ON . . . / Focus, page 10
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