A recent case in Germany has decided that Facebook accounts can be passed on in an estate, raising questions about social media platforms’ current policies surrounding user deaths. Currently, Facebook allows for an account to be terminated or turned into a memorial page after death, but the decision in Germany’s Federal Court of Justice has highlighted an issue with this policy when family members of the deceased request access to the accounts.
In this matter, the mother of a fifteen year old who was killed in a train accident wanted to access her daughter’s Facebook account to help her determine whether the death was a suicide, but due to Facebook’s current policy she was blocked from doing so. Facebook claimed this strict policy was to protect the privacy of the daughter’s contacts, but the mother argued that the social media accounts could be likened to private diaries that should be considered as part of her estate. The court agreed, holding that the daughter’s contract with Facebook was a part of her estate that legally passed to her mother upon her death.
While there is no current case law on this issue in Australia, this case highlights an increasingly important issue with estate planning and digital wealth, particularly for those with an online business or profitable social media accounts. Even wanting to pass on photos or videos stored on a digital device or cloud can be complex, and so it is recommended that a letter of wishes as to any accounts be included.