Laws, guidelines few when dealing with online life of the deceased -
Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 8:00 am
Laws, guidelines few when dealing with online life of the deceased

LINCOLN — Bryan Backhaus' Facebook profile was easy to find.

A quick Google search of his name yielded his page, but all the information was at least five years old.

Backhaus was 22 when he died in April 2008 of a rare form of spinal meningitis. His family thought his Facebook profile needed to go.

“It just doesn't feel right to have it up there,” said Judy Backhaus, his mother.

So Judy — human resources coordinator for the clerk of the Legislature — and her daughter, Autumn Backhaus, tried contacting Facebook to take down Bryan's account. They made several phone calls and sent emails but had a hard time reaching anyone.

“I actually gave up on it because we just didn't have any way of dealing with it,” Judy Backhaus said.

What happens to a deceased person's digital assets is largely dictated by individual company policies. Some examples:

Facebook: Can “memorialize” an account so friends can post remembrances but no one can log onto the account. Immediate family members can also request that the profile be removed entirely.
Memorialization request
Removal request
Request content

Google: Offers a new feature called inactive account manager. Users can designate in advance that data will be transferred to somebody else or deleted after a predetermined period of inactivity. More information.

Twitter: Will take down an account, but only after an immediate family member or a representative emails a copy of a death certificate, as well as proof that the deceased owned the account. More information.

Yahoo: Requires a copy of a death certificate to terminate an email account and permanently delete the contents. More information: Terms of service agreement, section No. 28

LinkedIn: Requires a death certificate to remove a deceased person's account. More information.

Legal experts say that sort of situation will become more common as the use of social media and other electronic communication continues to grow. A proposal now before the Nebraska Legislature would clarify what happens to the “digital assets” of the deceased.

Nebraska is one of 14 states where legislation has been introduced since 2012. Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island already have passed digital asset laws, which vary widely in scope.

State Sen. John Wightman's bill, which is unlikely to be acted on this year, would allow the executor of a will to control, and also terminate, the social media accounts, email accounts or blogging websites of someone who dies. The Lexington senator offered a similar bill last year.

Wightman's proposal, Legislative Bill 37, has the support of the Nebraska Bar Association.

Estate attorneys are coming across questions about digital assets such as Facebook and Twitter more frequently, said Katie Zulkoski, a lobbyist for the state bar. But no state law addresses the matter.

“Right now there just isn't a consistent answer,” Zulkoski said. “And that's what makes it difficult for attorneys and more importantly for the families.”

Adam Grieser, an attorney who works in estate planning for Fraser Stryker in Omaha, said he's only encountered a handful of cases in which digital assets were involved. But he thinks legislation could be helpful, especially as younger users of social media begin to age.

“Typically, estates I've planned are for people in their 80s and 90s, and their Facebook pages just aren't one of their priorities,” Grieser said.

Wightman's bill is being delayed as the issue is examined by the Uniform Law Commission, a nonpartisan group that proposes model legislation for states.

The commission is preparing uniform digital assets legislation that should be ready for state governments to consider next year, and the state bar association is willing to work with the commission, Zulkoski said.

“There is really a need for a good, clear law here,” she said.

The tech industry also supports waiting for standardized legislation from the commission, said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a coalition representing Internet companies including Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

Tech companies have been working with the commission to draft legislation that complies with federal law and companies' terms of service agreements covering the release of users' information, he said.

No digital assets bill has been introduced in the Iowa Legislature.

The Iowa Bar Association formed a committee to study the matter in 2012 but decided not to draft legislation after learning that the Uniform Law Commission had taken up the subject, said Iowa Bar representative Josh Weidemann.

Still, Weidemann said the need for a law is clear.

“This is only going to get worse as time goes on and people become more dependent on electronic communication,” Weidemann said.

Congress has no plans to address the matter. Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, who serves on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, doesn't plan to introduce a digital assets proposal and has not heard of any plans, said his spokesman Larry Farnsworth.

As it stands now, what happens to a person's “digital life” after death is largely dictated by individual company policies.

Most companies will remove an account if there's proof of the owner's death, but a court order is required to get specific information from an account.

Facebook will deactivate an account if an immediate family member provides proof of death, such as an obituary or death certificate. A Facebook account also can be “memorialized,” allowing “friends” to post memorials.

“Facebook always tries to be as helpful to families as possible while still complying with federal and state law,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyens said in an email.

Google launched a service called “inactive account manager” this month to let people control what happens to their accounts after they die. Among the choices — have your data deleted after a certain number of months of inactivity or have data sent to “trusted contacts.”

If the service isn't used, family members would need a court order to get access to email, video or other Google accounts.

As a practical matter, a family member with the deceased person's password could deactivate a social media account.

But Grieser cautions that that could lead to legal problems, depending on the company's terms of service agreement. For example, Yahoo's service agreement states that an account holder surrenders all rights to information in the account after death.

“Once you pass away, your will can say something about this account, but you might not have any rights to pass on through your will,” he said.

Bryan Backhaus hadn't supplied his family with his Facebook password.

But the Backhauses recently made another attempt to contact Facebook after learning about the process to take down a page from The World-Herald.

A week and a half ago, Judy and Autumn Backhaus emailed a copy of Bryan's death certificate to the company.

On Monday night, Facebook notified the family that the page had been removed.

“I'm amazed. I'm amazed,” she said. “This is a good thing.”

Contact the writer: Robby Korth    |   402-444-1169    |  

Robby is a a general assignment intern at the Omaha World-Herald and a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Lori Jenkins, charged as accessory in 4 murders, waives speedy trial
Iowa State servers hacked, nearly 30,000 SSNs at risk
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
2nd District House race: After 8 terms, Lee Terry knows how D.C. works — and doesn't
Bellevue man is killed at Minnesota dance hall after South Sudanese basketball tourney
Spring corn planting still sputters in Nebraska, Iowa, other key states
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
19-year-old killed in one-vehicle crash at 72nd & Shirley
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
U.S. Senate race: State Auditor Mike Foley defends Shane Osborn against ad campaign
Public defender to represent Nikko Jenkins in sentencing
Mid-America Center on track for lower operating loss
Bluffs City Council approves dozens of new numbered street lights
National Law Enforcement Memorial Week set for May
Ted Cruz backs Pete Ricketts' campaign for governor
Omahan charged with 5th-offense DUI after street race causes rollover
2 blocks of Grover Street closed
Safety board report blames pilot error in 2013 crash that killed UNO student, passenger
Omaha man accused in shooting ordered held on $75,000 bail
2 men charged with conspiracy to distribute meth held on $1 million bail each
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
La Vista plans meeting on sales tax proposal, 84th Street redevelopment
6-mile stretch of Highway 75 is the road not taken
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Millard school board bans e-cigarettes from all district properties, events
< >
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Breaking Brad: Kraft wiener recall is business opportunity for TD Ameritrade Park
Instead of returning the wieners, TD Ameritrade Park is calling them "cheese dogs" and charging double.
Breaking Brad: Photos with the Easter Bunny are so 2010
In a sign of the times, most kids ran out of patience waiting for a photo with the Easter Bunny at the mall, just snapped a selfie and went home.
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Steam-A-Way Carpet Cleaning
$50 for 3 rooms and a Hallway up to 600 square feet
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »