Death in the digital age and protecting your assets

As states across the USA pass laws to clarify what internet companies can release after someone dies, a Staffordshire solicitor is calling for everyone to consider their digital legacy and to document it for their loved ones.

From social media to bank statements, most of our personal data is in digital form. As our digital legacy grows larger dealing with death in the digital age has and will become more complex, says Wills and Probate Associate Solicitor Tim Bailey of Bowcock & Pursaill Solicitors.

This year Illinois was one of 19 American states that have passed laws dealing with how online accounts can be accessed after death. Google, Facebook and other companies have commented that federal privacy laws created decades before digital storage became common, prevent them from releasing this information on the death of a user.

Sadly there is no such UK legislation so the digital situation is more complex, meaning it’s even more important for everyone to make their wishes clear when it comes to their digital assets.

Tim said: “In today’s world where so much of our personal information is online, it’s important to provide for after death access to online accounts and assets for next of kin or to otherwise fulfil the creator’s wishes of what should happen to them.

“Some digital assets are of great sentimental value, for example photographs stored on a laptop, music files or personal emails.

“But they can also have significant monetary value, with digital currencies such as Bitcoin, advertising revenue from a blog or video channel or a business website or social media channel which has attracted followers.

“Lots of businesses have Facebook company pages or websites and it’s crucial that someone else knows how to access the account or domain, as someone may want to buy the business and the associated website and social media channels which come with it.

“Yet it still surprises people to learn that they don’t own their online content on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example, and that they actually only have a licence to use the website’s services.

“What happens to their profiles on death is governed by the website’s terms of use which vary depending on the service provider, but often the deceased’s online data is non-transferable.

“This means there’s no guarantee your personal representative or executor can legally take over an account and be able to access those online assets.

“That’s why it’s important to check the terms of use for your accounts to see if they specify what will happen on your death. You may want for example to nominate your personal representative to deactivate or manage a profile.

Facebook now allows users to choose a ‘Legacy Contact’, to access their account while Gmail has an ‘Account Trustee’ option who can be nominated to have direct contact with the service provider.

With this in mind it is more important than ever to make a will to ensure that your executors are able to carry out your wishes.

Tim’s tips:

  • Make an inventory of all your digital assets and keep the list up to date: This will make it easier for your personal representative of your will to establish the location of the assets they will need to administer. This inventory should be stored alongside your Will with a record of your passwords, stored confidentially. You may wish to use a letter of wishes in addition to your Will, to direct your executors as to your thoughts, expanding on your wishes in your Will regarding the administration of your online assets.
  • Create and update your Will: Sentimental assets (such as digital photos stored on your computer) can be gifted under a ‘personal chattels’ clause in your Will. If there are any items protected by Intellectual Property it is advisable that an informed executor is appointed to protect such rights. Executors may wish to consider seeking specialist advice.
  • Check the Terms of Use for your online accounts: They may specify what will happen to the account on your death and you can then leave appropriate guidance in your Will or letter of wishes. Be aware so you can take steps during your lifetime to protect assets currently stored online.

Anyone interested in advice about preserving their digital assets can contact Tim Bailey on 01538 399199 or email tb@bowcockpursaill.co.uk.

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