Bill would help families manage online accounts of dead relatives

By Bethany Knipp, Nebraska News Service

Nebraska lawmakers are considering legislation to help make dead people’s online information more accessible to their close friends or family members.

LB37 would allow a personal representative of a dead person to decide the fate of his or her social networking, email or blogging account by either controlling, terminating or continuing it.

Sen. John Wightman

The bill, introduced last week by Sen. John Wightman of Lexington, would update probate laws, said Roger Keetle, Wightman’s legislative aide. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hear the bill in a public hearing on Jan. 24.

Currently, only Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Indiana and Idaho have laws that include digital assets, or remnants of one’s life online, in a person’s estate. The statutes are variable, and only Oklahoma and Idaho include social networking and blogging as a part of estates.

Former  Rep. Ryan Kiesel pushed for the law in Oklahoma in 2010 after hearing cases in which people had difficulty accessing online information from their loved ones who died.

“There’s this recognition that rather than having a box full of papers and photographs that you keep under your bed or in your nightstand, more and more that property is being stored online,” Kiesel said.

But the more important purpose of the law was to get Oklahomans to think about including digital assets in their estates, he said.

“If you have a sound estate plan, you don’t have to use laws like this in the first place,” Kiesel said.

As a part of estate planning, Kiesel said privacy on social media sites and email accounts after one’s death is something that even younger Internet users should be keep in mind.

“When we’re thinking about privacy, it’s not enough to think about next week.”

For users who lack an estate plan, different Internet sites have their own policies for handling the accounts of those who have died.

Facebook has an option to “memorialize” an account, where a friend or family member can report the person has died. According to the policy, the account holder’s death has to be proven with a link to an obituary. Once the account has been memorialized, Facebook locks down the account to protect the user’s privacy.

Verified family members can request the removal of the account, but Facebook does not release content without a court order.

Google also requires a court order for content requests. Google spokesperson Chris Gaither said in an email:  “Protecting our users’ security and privacy is vital, and we’re constantly working to earn their trust. That means putting our users first when we receive requests for their personal information, even when it’s from a grieving family.”

In Nebraska, the social media probate bill was introduced last year, but failed to pass.

“[The bill] would provide a cure for what some people see as a potential problem,” Wightman said. “I think there’s a problem if we don’t do anything.”

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