What happens to your digital assets on death?

Rip Off Britain this week covered an area of law which is becoming increasingly prominent. When somebody dies, what happens to their 'digital…

BBC’s Rip Off Britain programme earlier this week covered an area of law which is becoming increasingly prominent with the increase in social media platforms and advancement in technology in general. When somebody dies, what happens to all their 'digital assets' (social media accounts, online photographs, online shopping/auction accounts, etc.)?

A survey by YouGov revealed that 52% of those surveyed said that nobody would be able to access their digital accounts when they died because they had not left any arrangements about what should happen.

However, there is often confusion as to who owns what on death, as there are different rules for different types of digital asset:

Digital assets with financial value

Such as online banking, PayPal, online shopping accounts, cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) – these are owned by you and it is important that these accounts are noted so your personal representatives can contact the relevant organisations when administering your estate on death.

Digital assets with social value

Such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn  this is a grey area of the law in terms of your legal rights that raises many questions. Do you own the content of your social media? You may have written much of it or taken the photos uploaded, but the use of it is controlled by the service provider. So you need to say who should have access to it and control of it on your death. What would you like to happen to your social media should it be closed down or memorialised and who should sort that out?

Digital assets with sentimental value

Such as Flickr and Instagram  you are unlikely to own these kinds of asset and so there may be difficulty passing them on to loved ones who may want to keep them. How would you feel if your photos were lost and your loved ones could no longer view them?

What will happen to these when you die? How can you ensure access to and (where possible) safe transmission of information that might otherwise be deleted, locked or lost?

You have the legal right to pass on digital assets with financial value to your chosen beneficiaries and you can do this by making or updating a will.

You also have the legal right to manage the deactivation, memorialisation or removal of your digital social life, but most of this content stored online is likely to have sentimental value only.

This is a quickly evolving area of law. For now we advise making or updating your Will to specifically set out what your intentions are for your digital assets and that empowers your executors to deal with your digital assets when you die.

It is also recommended that you make a 'digital directory' (a list of all your online assets and social media accounts) which should be regularly updated.

This will allow your executors to be able to trace your assets and pass them on to your beneficiaries. However, be careful with regard to storing usernames and passwords. This can be a breach of the terms of use for various types of digital asset as well as cause issues with any insurance cover you may have. By creating a list of your accounts, your personal representatives can pass this on to the relevant service provider.

Digital assets with sentimental value can be the most difficult to make arrangements for, but can also be the most important for those left behind. Unfortunately, many online applications such as Flickr and YouTube are accessed under licence agreements, so you do not have the legal right to pass them on to your chosen beneficiaries. As they are not tangible assets that can be passed on to your beneficiaries like photographs or CDs, it is important that you take practical steps such as making sure you have back ups or hard copies of items you want your beneficiaries to view after your death.

To speak with an experienced solicitor about managing your digital assets, please contact Weightmans' Wills Trusts and Estates Team.

James Clarkson is a solicitor in Weightmans’ Wills Trusts and Estates Team
James.clarkson@weightmans.com

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