Courts: Facebook Accounts Can Be Inherited After Death

John Lister's picture

A German court has ruled that Facebook accounts can be inherited. It's the latest attempt to solve the problem of what happens to online data after somebody dies.

The ruling came from the Federal Court of Justice, Germany's highest court, and ended a six-year legal process. It began with the death of a 15-year-old who died when she was hit by a train.

Her parents asked Facebook to give them access to her account, meaning they could see the contents of private message exchanges. They said they wanted to find any clues as to whether the death was suicide or an accident. As well as giving the parents answers to help deal with grief, they also noted that proving that the incident was suicide (if that were the case) would entitle the train driver to compensation. (Source:

Facebook Likened to Diary

Facebook refused the request, saying it had to protect the girl's privacy as well as the privacy of her contacts. It said it would not consider giving access unless it received a court order and even then wouldn't be certain to do so. Facebook's current policy in cases like this is to give partial access to relatives, where they can change the page to a memorial or delete the account entirely.

A lower court ruled in 2015 in favor of the parents on the grounds that Facebook data is the digital equivalent of private letters or a diary possessed by the deceased and thus can be considered part of the estate. That meant it belonged to her parents, who were the girl's heirs.

When Did the Contract End?

Facebook then won an appeal in 2017 having successfully argued that the issue was in fact one of contract law. The appeal court agreed that when the girl died, her contract with Facebook automatically ended and thus there was no obligation from Facebook towards the parents.

Now Federal Court of Justice ruling has restored the original verdict on two grounds: that digital data should indeed be treated in the same way as physical documents when it comes to inheritance law; and that German law gave the parents the right to know about the daughter's online discussions because she was a minor.

Facebook said it "respectfully" disagreed with that ruling and will "be analyzing the judgment to assess its full implications." (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Do you agree with the verdict? Do laws on inheritance need updating for the digital age? Does it make any difference to you that the case involves a child?

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Stuart Berg's picture

My sister died in December a few years ago and no one gave a thought about her Facebook account. On her birthday in September of the following year her Facebook account sent an automatic email to all her Facebook friends informing them that it was her birthday and they should wish her a happy birthday. It was actually kind of spooky receiving that email. I called her husband to ask if he wanted me to close her Facebook account. With his permission, I closed her account. I was able to do it because she had shared her password with me. My brother-in-law did not know the password and would have been unable to close my sister's Facebook account. How ARE people supposed to close a Facebook account when a loved one dies?