With over 21 million UK households now having internet access and 67 per cent of us logging on each day we are increasingly living our lives online. Our photograph albums, diaries and CDs have been replaced with online photo-sharing websites, social media sites and music accounts either stored on a device or on a “cloud”.
How do we pass these online items of our family history to the next generation and how are our online financial arrangements to be dealt with on death? With new media presenting difficulties for executors adminis-tering a person’s estate on death, it is becoming increasingly important that we consider the extent of our online life and include these digital assets in our overall estate plan.
Whether it be everyday banking, savings accounts, online investment portfolios and share trading accounts, online shopping or betting and gaming accounts, many of us have an online financial presence in one form or another. It is important to keep an up-to-date record of online accounts, otherwise you run the risk of these accounts being overlooked when your estate is being wound up.
But be careful – don’t leave a note of your PIN number or passwords, as this is likely to breach the bank’s conditions. An executor accessing an online account using the deceased’s username and password could also be committing a criminal offence of “unauthorised access” under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. It will be enough to simply leave a note of the bank and account number. An informal writing is preferable to leaving a legacy of specific accounts (or password details) in your will as you can then keep your records current without having to continuously update your will.
The process of dealing with online accounts after death is relatively simple. Financial institutions will typically require sight of a death certificate plus confirmation from court (depending upon the account’s value) to release information and funds. For Ebay or PayPal accounts, they will require a death certificate and confirmation plus the executor’s ID before it will pay out funds. Ebay will close an account or Ebay shop, it will not transfer ownership and failure to complete an agreed transaction due to death could result in a legal liability on the estate.
Each digital service provider has a different procedure for closing a deceased’s account. They will request proof of death (death certificate and sometimes a link to a published obituary) as well as confirmation of the executor or family member’s relationship to the deceased user.
Facebook gives families two options: delete the profile or set up a memorial page. If memorialised, the user’s personal information will be removed, and no one can log on to the account, but the user’s wall will remain and existing friends and family can leave messages.
Twitter will close the account and help families to recover an archive of the user’s public tweets. In contrast, e-mail providers are generally quite clear that they will honour the user’s privacy and not release any record of e-mail exchanges without a court order.
We don’t actually own the music in our iTunes accounts and our Kindle book collection, we only have a lifetime licence. The small print specifies that these rights terminate on death and are not transferable, even if we access our collection on a PC, device or Kindle which is owned or used by another family member.
It’s also good planning to review your will and grant a power of attorney as the problems surrounding access to your digital life aren’t confined to death but will also apply if you lose capacity. And finally, let your family know of the digital asset planning you have undertaken so that these valuable or sentimental assets aren’t ignored when you log off for good.
• Aileen Entwistle is an associate with Anderson Strathern Business Services in Glasgow