Spooky or Reassuring? Posthumous Messages from Loved Ones

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Imagine you had a letter from someone who was likely to pass away – could you resist reading it? 

Morgan received a letter from her cancer-stricken brother-in-law, Jack, to be opened after his death. She put it in her safety deposit box, to keep from opening it. When his health took a turn for the worse, she visited the bank and opened the letter. She was shocked to discover that her brother-in-law had a child by another woman that he had been financially supporting for years. 

Jack ended up pulling through, and made a remarkable recovery. Now he’s alive and in remission, and Morgan feels burdened with keeping the news in his “after death message from her sister – Jack’s wife.

What if you rarely told your children you loved them or were proud of them while you were alive? 

In another example, Lillith lost her father to Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that same year, her cousin died in her early 50’s, leaving behind her young children and husband. The events shocked Lillith into thinking about her own mortality and reminded her about how she wanted to prepare a legacy for her own children. Besides getting her estate planning documents in order, she wanted something in the form of a letter or a video that they could look at to let them know she loves and cares about them very much, and that she is proud of all they accomplished (things she feels she doesn’t tell them enough).

Messages from Beyond the Grave 

To keep an “after death message” from being revealed too early, or getting into the wrong hands, websites such as SafeBeyond keep written and video wishes safe and private until its users are gone or until a set time. SafeBeyond, which likens itself to Dropbox for the hereafter, is one of several similar cloud-based systems of this type.

How Does it Work?
Safe Beyond offers a safe place online for you to leave messages for your loved ones.

1. Sign up for an account. The basic account is free.
2. Create a “safe” for each person you want to leave a message.
3. Create your messages, which can be in the form of a written letter, audio recording, or video.
4. The site claims that, upon your death, your message will get to the right person at the right time.

Another service, called Heavenote, allows users to prerecord text, video, and photo messages that will be sent to loved ones after their death, on birthdays, holidays etc. The service was inspired by the film, P.S., I Love You, as a way to help a grieving widow or widower keep in touch with a dead loved one through predictive software.

More Downsides than Upsides? 

Services such as SafeBeyond and Heavenote are relatively new and could become problematic to heirs if not used correctly. Below are some things to consider before you begin recording your post-death message: 
  • Will it have unintended legal consequences? The purpose of SafeBeyond, Heavenote, and other such services is to give people a method to record personal messages whenever they want. But as with other forms of technology, the law of unintended consequences often reigns, which is what worries trust and estate lawyers. Videotaping anything meant for heirs when you’re sick or dead could have ramifications, particularly if not everyone is happy with their inheritance. If a lawyer is not part of that situation and a video message for loved ones surfaces in a probate contest, it could cause family problems and the wishes expressed might not be recognized by the court.
  • Will it be disturbing to your loved ones? While the services are intended to help people stay in their loved ones’ lives after they’re gone, more than a few people questioned whether such a message might be disturbing to the recipient. Some families will cherish a recording of a loved one; others are going to think it’s creepy (causing nightmares and more grief for loved ones). 
Ethical Wills – an Alternative 

It is preferable that people use an “ethical will” to lay out more emotional messages not appropriate for a will. An ethical will enables you to document and share (in writing or via an audio or video recording) your cultural and spiritual values, requests for forgiveness, stories about meaningful personal items that heirs are to receive per the decedent’s estate plan, “life’s lessons,” and more. The contents of an ethical will may not differ from one’s spiritual autobiographies or memoirs, but the intent makes an Ethical Will unique. Read more about ethical wills here.  

Digital Assets 

The nature of SafeBeyond and similar services — online and private except to those explicitly given access — raises broader issues about digital assets in an estate. 

In the past, when a person died, access to a digital service officially died with them. Even giving your password to your spouse or a trusted loved one is forbidden under Facebook’s terms of service. In fact, in 2004, Yahoo famously denied access to a US marine’s e-mail account to his family after the marine was killed in action in Iraq. Luckily, all of this has changed in Virginia with a new law permitting limited access to a deceased loved one’s online accounts.

The Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act, which became effective in Virginia on July 1, 2015, aims to assure that a person’s electronic footprint remains off-limits after death — even to his or her close kin — except under very strictly controlled circumstances. The legislation gives the personal representative of an estate the power to access a decedent’s online accounts and information in certain circumstances, with a judicial order. 
For more details on digital assets and laws regarding them, please read our blog post, What Happens to Your Online Data After You Are Gone?

Protect your Digital and Traditional Assets
Now is a good time to start planning for your digital assets AND your traditional assets, and to express your personal wishes for your loved ones in an Ethical Will if you choose to do so. Call us today to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning: 301- 519-804
DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797
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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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