Here's what happens to your Facebook account after your death

By Petro-Anne Vlok
29 April 2017

A digitally aware will clarifies what exactly happens to your online existence once you’re six feet under.

The digital world in which we live forces us to consider what will happen to our curated Instagram feed and up-to-date Facebook profile once we die.

Does Facebook remove inactive accounts after a certain period of time? Does our family get special permission to either keep or have our accounts taken down? And even worse: is someone now going to have access to our private – and in some cases very private – messages?!

People should put more thought into what will happen to their social network accounts after death, says Gavin McLachlan, a Pietermaritzburg attorney and chairperson of the Law Society of South Africa’s E-Law committee.

“The best way to ensure your wishes are respected after you die is to have a properly drafted digitally aware will,” he says.

Sounds rather silly, doesn’t it?

A will in which you formally hand over the rights of your social media accounts to loved ones. But it’s necessary; as such a will clarifies what exactly happens to your online existence once you’re six feet under.


As with a normal will stating who gets what, your digitally aware will should state what must happen to your ‘digital assets’ and social media accounts after you die.

In it you name a digital executor, who will be granted access to your social media accounts, photo archives, emails, cloud storage, blogs or other websites or web services, McLachlan says. But he warns that your passwords should not be displayed in your will.

A will becomes a public document after the Master of the High Court accepts it and opens an estate file, he explains, which means anyone can potentially obtain and read your will. You should rather note your passwords in a memorandum of wishes that’s attached to your will. This makes your passwords accessible only to your executor, allowing this person access to your computer, smartphone and other online services.

Remember to update your memorandum of wishes if you change any passwords.


If you haven’t set up a digitally aware will, you can have your Facebook page memorialised or deleted. This makes content that the deceased person has shared only available to the audience it was shared with. Memorialised profiles don’t appear in People You May Know suggestions or birthday reminders.

In order to memorialise someone’s profile after they’ve passed on, you would need to upload a death certificate or obituary when filling in the online request form. You will also need to prove that you’re a close family member or executor of the estate. Such proof will also be necessary to have the account deleted.


A memorialised Facebook profile could be helpful during the initial stages of grief.

“Bereaved people often feel a heightened need for connection, support, and belonging, and Facebook offers a way to connect with others,” says Cath Duncan, a social worker and grief educator in Cape Town.

According to Cheryl Sol, a Durban clinical psychologist, keeping a deceased loved one’s social media profile open can be compared to leaving someone’s room untouched after their death.

“While there’s no absolute guideline, there comes a time when leaving a deceased person’s room untouched or turning it into a shrine represents a failure to accept the loss. Messages from others on their Facebook page may initially support you but in time it might be better to let go and rather download the content and keep it somewhere.”

However, there’s no rush and mourners should only do so once they feel ready,


In staying digital savvy up until your very last breath, you could create a video will. And there’s an app to help you.

iPhone released an app called Your Last Will, which allows you to create and upload a private video.

You’re then issued with a QR code that you should give to someone you trust.

The person uses the code to sign into the app, which will then send them a link via email to the video and they are at liberty to share it with whoever you or they choose.

However, in most countries, including SA, a video doesn’t replace a written will.

“A recorded video or audio will is not acceptable in South Africa,” McLachlan says. “A video will can possibly clarify your intentions but there can also be serious questions about the integrity of a recording, especially as the chain of control for it can be murky.”

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