What Happens to Your Social Media and Online ‘Assets’ After Death?

Despite living resolutely in the Information Age, there is surprisingly little legislation designed to protect what is known as ‘digital assets’ in the event of a person’s death.

Nadine Wealands, associate at Roythornes Solicitors, explains what the law says regarding social media and online accounts and who can claim ownership of ‘digital assets’.

Whilst there is no formal definition, a digital asset is an asset that has value, can be owned at some point, but it has no physicality – music, e-books and social media accounts to name a few. It even goes so far as to include characters that are developed through online gaming or MMOGs (massively multiplayer online game) which can create virtual currency.

We use our phones, tablets and PC’s every day for more than just communication: we use them to capture images and video, a place to create and store documents, listen to music, read books and watch movies. We have social media accounts to share our pictures and videos. We buy and sell through PayPal and eBay, but what happens to our online accounts following our death and, most importantly, who do they then belong to?

Don’t take for granted that digital assets only have a value of sentimentality. From cryptocurrency to .com accounts, there is a value to be accessed, whether it’s a personal account or a business website that generates an income and has a more ‘tangible’ financial value.

So, whilst at present you cannot make a will for your digital assets, there are some things you can do to ensure the right people have access to them following death:

General advice

I would suggest people consider what they want others to have access to after death and discuss with them how they will get access. Whilst I am not a security expert, I would caution people against sharing passwords, an alternative option is to share your passwords with your solicitor and then ensure they are kept abreast of any updates.

I also suggest having someone they trust be given permission to have access by signing an authority and keeping with Will.

Storage can be by way of iCloud accounts (iCloud Keychain for example) and most smartphones offer a cloud-based service to store passwords, using an external hard drive is another option as are memory sticks.

There is potentially a generational gap, in perhaps how people store their passwords.  I advise all clients regardless of age to keep a record on paper and electronically of all passwords.  Also entrusting a child /children of passwords, is a good way to ensure this information is shared.

As above, write down and store with Wills, lasting power of attorney’s, lawyer, accountant or trusted friend or family member.  Use an online account through your phone or computer and external hard drives are good for keeping personal data.

Emails

Emails are personal and your family may wish to keep them, however access may be denied.  As with other accounts upon death the account may be deleted. Providing your executors with usernames and passwords will help them access accounts. Google has also created a tool which allows you to govern what happens to your accounts when you die, allowing you to name a contact if inactivity occurs and whether or not the nominated person can access and keep your data or if the account should be deleted.

Social media accounts

Social media sites would usually delete accounts; however your family can request that the account become a memorial on the proviso certain information is provided to the platform. Twitter unfortunately will delete the account regardless. To avoid this from happening, provide account details to a trusted person to allow future access.

Digital music files

Music libraries should be saved to an external hard drive if possible. iTunes accounts are not transferrable and end on death as you no longer comply with the set terms and conditions. There is, however, no further guidance as to what happens following death so consider passing on the account user information to a trusted person or set up a joint account for multiple users.

Ebooks

The above also applies to ebooks. Like digital music, the usage licence dies with the user and cannot be transferred. Again, consider giving your family the account details. It is worth noting some e-books are protected by DRM (digital rights management) which prevents copying.

Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency and bitcoins have been around since 2009 and are stored in a digital wallet. Due to its nature of being designed for anonymity and lack of control and monitoring, it has been seen as an easy target for criminals. However, it is possible to remove the currency and store it in a safe. By providing your executors with the username and password to your account, the currency can be accessed, and your beneficiaries can inherit your balance.

Until such time that the law has evolved to allow digital asset wills, it is vital to ensure that your executors and beneficiaries have the means to access your digital assets on your death or risk losing them entirely.

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