What happens to our digital life on death?

Our digital lives seem to know no bounds with every aspect of the way we live today having a virtual dimension should we choose it.

Not all that long ago, the topic of digital life would not have been a concern when it came to estate planning or estate administration. However, as it is becoming more common to be consumed with our digital lives, it is also becoming more important to consider your digital life after death. We all know that we need to make a Will to deal with our money and physical assets but in this digital age, should we not also be considering digital planning. 

We live our lives online through social media, facebook, Instagram, etc. How do I close the accounts? We are spending more money on digital assets such as music, movies and ebooks. Can these assets be passed on to beneficiaries? Internet shopping accounts, amazon, nectar etc. Do these accounts have any value and how do I close them down? Our bank accounts and investments are held and accessed online. How do I get access to the money and close the accounts? 

We can own websites and domain names and the intellectual property needs protecting. Also, those producing original material for sites such as YouTube, can generate significant advertising revenues. How do we pass these on to beneficiaries? 

Dealing with someone’s digital life after death is made more difficult because there is no standard procedure across the internet for what happens when an account user dies. In some cases, the answer is simple for example iTunes is different than most digital accounts because every time a customer purchases a song, book or movie from iTunes, they are subscribing to the use of the media for their own personal use. They are not actually buying the media, and as such do not own it. This means that it is not possible to distribute these items to beneficiaries and any licence expires on death.

In April 2015, Facebook introduced the option to include a legal contact to allow the appointed person to download copies of the deceased’s digital assets from Facebook, as well as the option to have your account deleted once the account holder dies. Another example is a Google account, such as Gmail or Google Drive, which has the option of appointing an Inactive Account Manager.

Although most people are not aware of the capability to set such executors to their online lives, Google and other service providers have stated that they would work with family members and representatives to address and close accounts for a deceased individual. These service providers may require copies of documents such as proof of death, or a copy of the Will to be able to allow the executor access to the online account.

What about all our other digital accounts? 

When it comes the estate planning, there are a few important items, which should be considered and included in your estate planning and making a Will:

  • Make an update a digital list with details of your life online – apps, email accounts, social networks, blogs, photo sharing sites, bank accounts and so on – and their login details and what you want to happen to the account on your death. This should not be part of your will as that becomes a public document upon your death, but should be left available to your executors. Warning – be careful not to breach the terms and conditions of any sites you have used when doing this.

You can access a template here. 

  • Consider appointing a separate “Digital Executor” just to manage your digital assets, particularly if they are extensive or complex or if your first named executor does not have technical knowledge
  • State in your Will or in a document referred to in your Will where the account information can be found – and what you would like to happen to each account
  • Consider storing your account information online in a secure “digital inheritance” account. There are several services that offer to keep multiple passwords, sending them to a designated person after death. Each site has a system in place to verify a user’s death before distributing any digital passwords.
  • Prepare a signed authorisation form for each online company disclosing and granting access to your representative – check each company’s terms and conditions first

The extra steps required in dealing with digital assets and accounts require the proper contemplation and planning by the testator. The job of an executor is already a stressful responsibility and any additional delays, barriers and even liabilities are to be avoided.

If you want to set up a Will, amend your existing Will or discuss this further, please contact Rebecca Bristow on 01548 288008 or at rb@startpointlaw.co.uk