According to UK report last year, a typical internet user has more than 100 separate online accounts – from online banking to social media. The study estimated that this number would almost double by 2020. Indeed, it would be unusual now for someone to die without leaving some sort of digital footprint.
But when an individual creates a Will, do they think of their digital presence?
What happens to all of these accounts on the death of the account holder? How do family and friends access them, keep them going or close them down?
With so many different service providers and no overriding rules on the subject, dealing with a digital footprint can be a massive headache.
Here, we look at the current situation and the best ways to get your digital assets in order.
There are two different types of digital footprint that become important when someone passes away:
- digital assets
- social media sites.
As digital assets form part of a deceased individual’s estate, it is imperative that executors are able to gain access to and ingather these assets. However, it isn’t as easy to access information on digital possessions as it is with tangible assets such as bank accounts, insurance policies, etc. Some examples of more common digital assets are:
- Online bank accounts
- Online store accounts
- Purchase sites such as PayPal
- Amazon, Ebay, iTunes, etc.
With more people now getting “paperless billing” and dealing with utilities bills such as gas and electricity online – indeed there can be some financial reward for an individual in doing this - knowing how to deal with online accounts is becoming increasingly important.
When an individual opens any sort of online account, they enter into terms of agreement, which much of the time they do not read. On the whole, these agreements are extremely long and cumbersome. More often than not, these agreements provide that the individual opening the account isn’t the sole owner of the online information and that they belong, in part, to the service providers who store the information on their servers.
People will name executors in their Will but they don’t necessarily appoint “digital executors”. This means that the executors will need to wade through a different policy for each online account. Legislators in America have recognised this problem and the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) has come up with some draft legislation to grant an appointed designated individual broad access and control of the deceased’s digital assets. This legislation is still in draft form however and many states across America still have to adopt it.
Social media networking sites
On the death of an individual, their friends and family may want to retain their loved one’s social media sites for sentimental reasons. Each service provider however has their own rules and regulations for this. Under our domestic copyright laws, posts and photos on social networking sites should form part of the individual’s estate, however as most of these sites are based outwith the UK, our domestic laws don’t apply.
Some of the following social media sites have their own policies for when a member passes away.
Facebook now has a service called “Deactivating, Deleting and Memorializing Accounts” which is accessible from any Facebook account. This service provides an option for a user to designate a legacy contact for maintaining the site as a “memorial” page. The profile is locked but it allows friends and loved ones to post on the page and to view the photographs on it. There is also an option for the executors to close the page completely. Before either option can be exercised, proof of death and authority to act may require to be provided by the executors. It should be noted that such legacy contacts or executors do not have access to private messages.
The Twitter account is cancelled on production of a number of items. The executors of the deceased are required to provide a note detailing their relationship to the deceased, a copy of their contact details and a link to the deceased’s profile. Bizarrely, they also require a link to a public obituary or news article as opposed to the death certificate.
LinkedIn provide a “verification of death form” which must be completed by the executors, providing the email address registered to the LinkedIn account.
In order to close down a Gmail email account, the executor must provide the death certificate, a copy of their own ID and evidence of past email exchanges between themselves and the deceased. Google also provide a service called “Google Inactive Account Manager” with details on their homepage.
Yahoo does not release any information on accounts held with them. The executors should send a letter requesting closure of the account together with the Yahoo ID of the deceased, evidence of their appointment as executor and a copy of the death certificate. They will then close the account without releasing any details from it.
Technology is moving faster than the law so each service provider has their own set of policies in the event of the death of a member and many act on a case-by-case basis which can make it difficult for executors. It does seem to be getting a little better with time.
How can you get your digital assets in order – a Digital Legacy Plan
It is advisable that until such times as digital assets are treated the same as tangible assets, anyone with an online presence should treat both sets of assets equally. They should keep a list of all online accounts with passwords and leave instructions on how each digital asset has to be handled.
This is called a Digital Legacy Plan or a Personal Assets Log. To create one, regard should be had to the following points:
- Make a list of all accounts you have online – create an inventory providing account details with the email address or telephone number which is linked to the account;
- Note how you would like each of these accounts to be handled in the event of your death;
- Decide who should be your “digital executor” – this does not have to be the same person as the executor in your Will;
- Store this information in a safe place and make sure that your “digital executor” is aware of where this is held - it is advisable to hold all account details and passwords separately;
- Keep your list up to date – we have to change passwords on a regular basis so re-visiting your list every few months will make sure your information is up to date.
If an executor does not know what information is held for an individual online, it would be prudent for them to check the smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc of the deceased person for evidence of such accounts.
It is imperative that an executor does not access any such accounts without authority from the service provider, even if they hold the passwords, as accessing the account is likely to be a breach of the terms of agreement on the account and in some cases could even constitute a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. They should contact the service provider and access can be arranged through them.
Online financial accounts should be treated like ordinary bank accounts. The provider should be contacted and the accounts frozen. The provider will most probably look for the original death certificate (or a translation if it is not in English), a copy of the Grant of Confirmation and sometimes a form of ID from the executor – for example, a passport or driving licence.
It should be noted that original documents should not be sent to Microsoft for Outlook, Hotmail, Live, Windowslive or MSN because everything they are sent is shredded at the end of the process and not returned.
Get in touch
If you would like to know more about how to deal with digital presence after a death, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our private client team.