Alright listen, no one wants to talk about this stuff but it’s important. One day, you’re going to die. Hopefully it will be peacefully at home surrounded by friends and family but maybe you’ll be eaten by an alligator and all over the news and then holy shit, everyone is Twittering about you getting eaten alive and some rando on the Internet fires up a GoFundMe to build a memorial to you. No one wants that but shit happens. And that’s what we’re here to talk about.
Legally speaking, you control your likeness. That’s why you sign a release if you decide to go on a reality show (for some bizarre reason I cannot possibly fathom), because you and you alone own the rights to your name and your likeness. Your likeness even belongs to you when you’re dead, but that’s where we get into weird territory.
All too often, we see instances of third cousin’s babysitter’s dogsitter’s mailman putting up GoFundMe pages after someone has died, and while these pages might be well-intentioned it also begs the question: are they legally allowed to do that? The short answer is no: you still own your likeness even after you’re dead if you prepared before you died.
We asked Steve Worrall, Georgia estate planning probate & adoption Lawyer, and here’s what he said:
The right of publicity, often called personality rights, is the right of an individual to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or other unequivocal aspects of one’s identity. You own that right during your life and your estate owns it after you die. A lot of stories today are about Prince’s rights of publicity as one of the more valuable parts of his estate. I wouldn’t say you have to do estate planning to protect it, although I would say everyone should do estate planning. But by including express instructions in your plan you give clear direction to your personal representative as to what publicity you want or do not want. I would include the directions to prohibit such activity in the digital data section of the estate plan.
What this means is that if you have an estate plan, then you are giving your elected personal representative full control over your likeness after you die. Without one, pretty much anyone can whip up a GoFundMe whether or not that’s something you wouldn’t have wanted while you were alive. With a plan in place, you are saying that you trust your personal representative to respect your wishes and not blast your business all over GoFundMe.
In an article he wrote for the Georgia Society of CPAs magazine last year, Steve Worrall talked about digital assets, which includes not just our Facebook pics and photos but the digital imprint we leave after we’re gone, all of which often gets curated after we die on GoFundMe pages if any rando we ever knew in high school is allowed to fire one up for us:
Digital assets are a very real part of our lives now and it’s something we need to plan for like any other asset we own. Whether you create formal instructions as part of your estate plan or whip up a DIY compilation of your accounts and give it to someone you trust, make sure someone knows what you have, where to find it and how to preserve it if something unexpectedly happens to you.
So the short answer is to plan for your death, and that includes your likeness. You do have the power to stop GoFundMe pages from being made in your name after death, you just have to make sure you go through the proper channels to elect a representative. Lacking a representative, then next of kin might have have authority but that’s an issue for probate court.
The easy solution here is to talk to an estate attorney whether you’re 20 or 50. You never know when something could happen (God forbid, those alligators that might eat you to death at a stop sign are a constant threat right) and having a plan in place will prevent any random person you talked to for 5 minutes in your high school bathroom from starting a GoFundMe in your name.
GoFundMe itself does zero checking and lets anything fly on its platform, so it is on you to empower yourself with a legal representative should you die. Otherwise any cousin’s babysitter’s catsitter’s mailman can write up any sob story they want about you after you die using your Facebook photos and purporting to “support” your loved ones, with no verification in place to call them out on it. If you appointed a representative before your death, then that rep and that rep alone is the only one who can legally use your likeness after you are gone.
Food for thought. Think hard. I know no one wants to think about this but unfortunately this brave new world of ours requires it.