Until recently, most people who died while owning a large music collection would simply have “pass on” their long-player records or, more recently, compact discs, to a person, or persons, nominated in their will.
Nowadays it is becoming increasingly likely that the music collection will be stored on computer, particularly in an iTunes library. This might seem at first to be advantageous because rather than find space to store the inherited LPs or CDs, one might presume that all the beneficiary has to do is access the iTunes library and transfer the contents to his or her hard drive.
Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. When buying music, videos or games on iTunes, what you are buying is the right to use the content rather than the content itself. So when you die your iTunes library – or at least that part of it containing material purchased from the company – dies with you.
This is just a symptom of an issue which has become highly relevant after almost 20 years of ever-expanding internet use by the population at large: what happens to our digital “assets” – or assets that are stored digitally – after we die?
Ironically, in pre-internet days it was generally easier for surviving family members to access all or most relevant documents held by a deceased person. Everything – from shares certificates to “irreplaceable” photographs, was usually kept in a sturdy box stored under lock and key at the top of a wardrobe or somewhere in the attic – unlike files stored within various password-protected internet accounts.
Therefore, even in the digital age, it still makes sense to keep a written record (on paper) of all bank and building society accounts, shareholdings and other receipted assets, along with the name of each account and relevant account number – but not (in the case of internet accounts) one’s internet password. The account name and number should be sufficient for the solicitor handling an estate to trace and freeze the account. It is particularly important to leave details of any credit card accounts, whether the monthly payments are made by post, telephone or over the internet as a failure to inform the card provider that the cardholder has died could lead to hefty late payment fees and additional interest charges.
It is becoming increasingly common for people in their sixties and seventies, and even beyond, to use internet banking and share-dealing so the incidence of people dying while still owning “live” internet accounts is growing all the time.
The easiest option would be to provide a copy of our various passwords to close family members but for various reasons, not least security, this is not a good idea. The best course of action, therefore, is to create a secure database to log all your online accounts, something for which inexpensive, blank CDs are ideal. Details of how to access the database (either whole or in part) can then be kept with your will, which will normally be held by the family solicitor.
There is always the possibility that such a database could be lost or stolen, which is why in the US there are several websites – some free, others paid for – which claim to offer a secure, encrypted haven for all your files and folders (whether financial or not) and their relevant passwords.
Meanwhile, popular websites have various policies relating to users who become dormant through death or serious incapacity. In social media, Facebook policy is to remove a page at the request of kith and kin while Twitter will do the same after receiving a copy of the relevant death certificate. The e-mail organisations, Hotmail and gmail, will provide family members with a CD giving details of the deceased’s account if a death certificate is provided (or power of attorney in the case of severe incapacity).
A survey carried out last year for the University of London found one in ten people in the UK already include access to online accounts with their wills. “Digital death” might one day become as inevitable as the real thing.
• Carole Hope is a partner with the law firm Murray Beith Murray.