Digital assets need managing after death

Picture: Getty

Picture: Getty

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THIS may be hard to take in, but approximately 30 million of the people currently on Facebook are no longer with us, yet by the end of last year only one-tenth of those deceased members had been memorialised.

While it has always been a cause of concern that only six in ten people in the UK bother to write a will to govern their estate, even fewer have a plan in place for the management of their digital assets after death. These normally include stored information such as family photographs and home movies and online accounts associated with social media, e-mail, banking, investments, gaming, photo sharing and music storage, all now largely stored in the cloud through a variety of internet service providers (ISPs).

Until now it has been virtually impossible for these accounts to be respectfully closed unless their deceased owners had left specific instructions in a will, or similar document. However, in April Google announced a new service, “inactive account manager”, designed to give the user control of what should happen to account information upon either a prolonged inactive period, or on their death. The user is able to specify inactive time frames, notify relatives or other contacts of his, or her, inactive status and share information with them.

Create a secure database

While other ISPs are still restricting the transferability of digital assets, individuals should consider making their own arrangements. Identifying digital assets and determining what should happen to them on death will become an important element of estate planning.

Holders should create a secure database to record all online accounts and provide guidance of the retention of any specific files and social network accounts and blogs to be closed for the benefit of their executor. The data should of course be updated to reflect any change. Details of how to access the database could then be stored with their will, which is normally held by the family solicitor.

Over time, the law of succession has developed to reflect changing society and the world we live in. It could however be about to face its biggest challenge yet as more and more of us use the internet to manage our daily lives and perhaps inadvertently become owners of digital assets.

• Angela McMahon is a senior solicitor with Murray Beith Murray

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