After death, life can continue online
Nearly two years after the death of Jay Feldman, his wife, Tracy, hasn't closed out his Facebook account.
"At some point, yes, it will be taken down, but I'm not ready yet," said Feldman, whose 55-year-old husband died suddenly Dec. 5, 2012.
"It's still a link that I can't extinguish," said the East Lyme woman left to raise the couple's three children.
For Feldman and other bereaved family members who lose a loved one with digital accounts like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, there are nagging questions about what to do with the departed's online assets.
This summer, the national, nonpartisan Uniform Law Commission drafted a proposal dealing with the issue and asking states to adopt it. If enacted, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act would allow a fiduciary with access to tangible assets like property or bank accounts the same access to digital assets.
Beyond social media, those assets could include online photograph, video or recipe collections, manuscripts, poetry, letters and emails. Today, most documents and photographs are stored electronically - no longer tucked away in manila folders in desk drawers or filing cabinets.
"In the modern world, digital assets have largely replaced tangible ones," said the Uniform Law Commission in a press release it issued after it passed the act on July 16. "Documents are stored in electronic files rather than in file cabinets. Photographs are uploaded to websites rather than printed on paper. However, the laws governing fiduciary access to these digital assets are in need of an update."
The group, meeting as the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws, said the act it passed will help to handle resolution of digital property when a person dies.
"We all have digital assets and we are all concerned about what happens to them when we are not able to access them ourselves," said attorney Suzanne Walsh of West Hartford, who is a member of the group and chaired the digital assets act drafting committee.
"The way we are thinking is, let's treat digital the same as other assets," she said.
The model legislation has been forwarded to states with the goal of getting it enacted as law, said Walsh.
Delaware has adopted it, and she said there is great interest from state lawmakers across the country to sponsor and help pass the act.
"I've never had a case, but I can see the battle with personal property issues," said Judge Jeffrey A. McNamara of the Niantic Regional Probate District, of digital property.
Vincent J. Russo and Thomas E. Gaffey, administrators of Connecticut's Probate Court, said they are not aware of any instances in Connecticut's probate courts that have dealt with digital issues.
"There was some talk of a bill the last couple years at the legislature but nothing passed," Russo said in an email.
Comforted by memorials
Sometimes, before a death, family members might think to secure passwords and account information so they can later access their loved one's accounts. But in virtually every circumstance, that is a violation of licensing or service-term agreements, and violators may be prosecuted.
When there is a young or sudden death and passwords have not been shared, grieving relatives are left in limbo, unable to access accounts or social media profiles, occasionally prompting legal battles.
Shortly after her husband's death, Tracy Feldman said, she was too distraught to visit her husband's Facebook page, but later, when she looked at it, she was comforted by the memorials and photographs posted there by her husband's Facebook friends.
Facebook friends also posted tributes and photographs when Barbara Ramus Major died July 10, and continue to do so today. The 61-year-old New London woman was the city's registrar of voters for two decades, served on the school board, and was active in schools that her five children attended.
Her oldest daughter, Melissa Ford, said she's not sure what will eventually happen to her mother's Facebook page.
"We're a large family, and that's a family discussion," she said. "It's something we need to take care off, but not now. It's kind of like going through the estate. We all have different ideas and the Facebook page now is like part of the estate."
Ford did say that around the time of her mother's death, some misinformation was posted on her mother's page, prompted in part by automated updates posted by sites Barbara Major had liked or followed. But mostly, Ford said, Facebook was a good thing for the family.
They used it to get out the word about their mother's memorial service and liked it when people posted photographs of her that they didn't have.
"We were able to use some of those photos at her service," Ford said.
It also allowed the siblings to see their mother more completely.
"Some people may have known my mother as a childhood friend, or a neighbor, or through politics, or as a mom - but it gives a fuller understanding of all the different layers of the person," she said.
And since her mother was cremated, not buried, Ford said Facebook is now "like a headstone at a cemetery" where relatives and friends can visit her.
Accessing email is difficult
For those who want to close down a page, Facebook has a process for "verified immediate family members" to request the removal of a loved one's account from Facebook.
Or, they offer the option of memorializing an account upon receipt of a valid request.
Accessing a deceased person's email can be more difficult.
"If you need access to the Gmail account content of an individual who has passed away, in rare cases we may be able to provide the contents of the Gmail account to an authorized representative of the deceased person," reads the Google policy.
"At Google, we're keenly aware of the trust users place in us, and we take our responsibility to protect the privacy of people who use Google services very seriously. Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased person's email will be made only after a careful review.
".... Because of our concerns for user privacy, if we determine that we cannot provide the Gmail content, we will not be able to share further details about the account or discuss our decision."
Some sites will shutter a page or content if there is no activity for an extended period of time, perhaps two years. But in many cases with social media, such as Facebook, friends and family continue to post, keeping the page active.
For Kimberle Bobinski, whose husband Joseph Bobinski, 60, died in Maryland on May 8, "Joe's FB page is a healing tool for us and many other people," she said in an email.
Joe Bobinski was raised in Niantic and graduated from St. Bernard High School in Uncasville in 1972, and kept in touch with many people in southeastern Connecticut through Facebook.
When he died after a decade-long battle with prostate cancer, the family posted a letter that Bobinski had written when he knew his end was near.
It read, in part, "As I write this I am entering the final stages of my life. It has been a good run and I tried my hardest to do the best I could to make a difference."
The message was posted May 9 with a footnote saying Joe had died the night before.
His wife said she found her husband's final note as well as some other sentiments, poems and scriptures several weeks before he died and decided to post the final message upon his death. Bobinski shared his passwords with his family so they could access his online files, and Kimberle Bobinski said that helped her to settle his estate as far as online accounts and other business that Joe transacted there.
"Without access to his digital accounts, life during and after his death would be much more difficult, creating a longer healing process," she said.
Today, family and friends still regularly visit and post on Joe's Facebook page.
Recently, daughter Kristen uploaded a video there of her young daughter Kendall riding in the back seat of her car.
The window was down and Kendall was talking out the window. When Kristen asked the 4-year-old who she was talking to, she replied: "Poppy," and added, "Up in the sky."
"What's he doing?" Kristen asked.
"Loving me," said Kendall.
Kimberle Bobinski said she's not sure how long the family will continue the page, but for now it is therapeutic.
For Marianna McGuirk of Waterford, whose husband, Brendan, died Aug. 3, it's too soon to decide what will happen to his Facebook page, she said.
But Brendan McGuirk, 63, a Navy veteran and longtime New London firefighter, found comfort on Facebook during his long fight with cancer.
"I know it sure gave Brendan a life when he was in the hospital," she said. "In the middle of the night, he would be on there."
Tracy Feldman said her husband was active on Facebook, too, promoting their oldest son Noah's music career. So shuttering his page would be akin to getting rid of some of his favorite possessions.
"It's like all the stuff in his truck," she said, explaining that "Jay practically lived in his truck when he wasn't home, and he had all kinds of stuff in there."
She sold the truck after his death but still has all the personal belongings her husband kept in his vehicle.
His Facebook page is like those possessions and she's not able to part with it, she said.
"I'm just not ready yet," she said.
Memorializing a Facebook account
What happens when a deceased person's account is memorialized?
Facebook does not allow anyone to log into a memorialized account.
Memorialized accounts cannot be modified in any way. This includes adding or removing friends, modifying photos or deleting any pre-existing content posted by the person.
Depending on the privacy settings of the deceased person's account, friends can share memories on the memorialized Timeline.
Anyone can send private messages to the deceased person.
Content the deceased person shared (ex: photos, posts) remains on Facebook and is visible to the audience it was shared with.
Memorialized Timelines don't appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know or birthday reminders.
Creating an account in remembrance of a deceased person is not allowed. Facebook encourages a page or a group be created for this purpose instead.
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