Our world is becoming increasingly digital, you are probably reading this on the screen of a computer, tablet or phone. The increasing reliance on technology to manage our money, to hold our music or photos and to record our friendships or business contacts can cause problems when you die.
Accessing accounts is fairly easy while you are alive and can remember your password. But if you die, who can access your online profiles, and do they have a legal right to do it? There is a big clash between the virtual world of online accounts, iTunes libraries and other online assets, and the real world where the right to access your money relies on a grant of probate, the piece of paper issued by the Court embossed with an official seal. Not very digital is it.
After a relative dies it can be hard to find out what assets they owned, especially if there aren’t many records to look through. The Law Society recommends that you make a list of all of your assets and place it with your Will to make it easier to find your accounts once you’ve died. This list should include any online accounts, not just financial matters like banking or PayPal, but also the social media you use. The list shouldn’t include any passwords though, you will probably change these anyway to keep your accounts secure, and you wouldn’t want someone to be able to access your accounts while you are alive.
It can be hard to work out what ‘virtual assets’ actually are. This is easier if accounts hold money, but supermarket loyalty points or airmiles also have a value which might be transferrable after death. Music and movies bought online and downloaded can’t be transferred to a new owner as easily as a collection of CDs or DVDs because the licensing terms and conditions from the providers might prevent them being passed on. Your executors or family will have to look at the accounts to see what they are allowed to do with each one.
Social media is also part of your digital legacy. Your family might want to preserve your facebook or twitter page for posterity, it’s the modern equivalent of finding a relative’s diary. But, in some cases bereaved families have been subjected to online bullying, with abusive messages posted by ‘trolls’. If your family can access your accounts when you die, they can preserve your account for posterity, or close it down if they prefer.
Online service providers and social media companies are starting to think about the death of their users. Google offers an ‘inactive account manager’ so that dormant accounts can be deleted or a person you nominate will be contacted to find out if you are still alive. But, as we become more reliant than ever on the internet, even government services aim to be ‘digital by default’, we should all put plans in place to manage our digital afterlife.