Your Digital Afterlife: Have You Planned For It?

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Our lives are increasingly led online – use of PayPal, Amazon, Facebook, eBay and many other internet based services has soared in the last decade. The average UK citizen has 26 online accounts and the Norwegian Centre for Information Security says that the average number of private passwords per person is 17 (with the average number of work passwords being 8.5). Research by YouGov in 2016 found that 52% of us have not made provision for our digital accounts to be accessed in the event that we die or are incapacitated and this can lead to problems when life takes an unexpected turn.

In the UK there is no legislation defining digital assets or governing how they should be accessed and dealt with in these circumstances. It is however accepted that digital assets can comprise information about you in a digital form and may include social media accounts, online banking and other shopping accounts such as PayPal, betting accounts, store directories, smartphone and app data, domain names, online music accounts, ebooks and online currencies such as bitcoins.

However, care does need to be taken because often social media accounts in particular are operated under a licence which is not transferable on death and would not therefore form part of your estate. This has led to heartbreak, with families being denied access to photos and personal messages after a loved one has passed away suddenly. There can also be difficulty in obtaining financial assets, for example vouchers which have been applied to an account but not used.

When somebody dies their personal representatives are responsible for administering their estate but they may not know what digital assets there are, or how to access them. This in turn can lead to accounts lying dormant and funds not being claimed. Digital assets which are not administered on death will eventually form part of the unclaimed assets register and the deceased’s beneficiaries could be out of pocket. Care is also needed because if someone is incapacitated and a friend or relative does manage to access their account without proper authority they may be in breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Although an online footprint can have financial value, as mentioned above it is often the loss of sentimental items such as photos and emails which can cause a family anguish. It is less common these days for people to write diaries or maintain photo albums – instead they publish blogs or keep photos in the Cloud, and without clear directions and permission to access the accounts, decisions about what happens to the content in these circumstances are made by the service provider. This can mean that personal data which could have provided comfort in the wake of a trauma is unavailable to the family of the deceased or incapacitated.

So what can you do to help your family should the worst happen?

  • If you run a business, ensure that you have a comprehensive digital recovery plan in place.
  • Check the terms and conditions of your accounts and nominate ‘legacy users’ where this option is provided, which will allow your nominated user to manage (and close if appropriate) your account.
  • Include a digital assets clause in your Will and consider appointing a ‘digital executor’ to have specific responsibility for your ‘virtual’ life if you have a significant online presence.
  • Attorneys appointed under a Lasting or Enduring Power of Attorney should consider matters such as iCloud storage subscriptions and ensure services are maintained until they have retrieved hard copies of things they want to keep.

Most importantly, consider your individual circumstances and take professional advice if you are unsure about what to do to ensure your wishes regarding your digital footprint are observed. This is a complex and fast evolving area where tailored advice is recommended.

Joanna Mills is a partner in our wills, trusts and probate team. Our  wills, trusts and probate solicitors and executives are able to help you to deal with the process of administering an estate following the death of a family member or friend. Unfortunately, sometimes there are disputes either about the Will or by beneficiaries or executors. Our Probate Litigation Team is able to assist.

Contact our probate solicitors today on 03456 381381 or email us at estatemanagement@ibblaw.co.uk.