Removing guesswork when dealing with digital legacy of social media is essential - Andrew Paterson

I’ve a warning for those named as executors in a Will, as there’s an increasingly complicated and evolving issue centred around social media and digital assets.

Andrew Paterson is a Partner with Murray Beith Murray
Andrew Paterson is a Partner with Murray Beith Murray

I don’t think Mark Twain would have made a very good executor in today’s environment. His belief that you ‘get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please’ doesn’t quite fit in with the duties and responsibilities required when you’re dealing with an estate. Try that argument with HMRC!

For those taking on the role of executor, there’s a modern twist to add into the mix of things to do and consider, namely social media. This is perhaps not top of the list of things you might expect to deal with, especially for estates of an older generation.

Let’s look at some of the UK facts and figures: there are now 48.5 million Facebook users in this country, 20 per cent of whom are over the age of 55, four out of five professionals make up the 31.2 million signed up to LinkedIn and over 17 million engage on Twitter. We can’t forget the 28.8 million on Instagram nor Tik Tok - not just the preserve of the young, as one dancing granny with 92 million likes on her account will confirm.

Social media might seem a frivolous topic weighed against some of the other duties of an executor, but the sheer volume of users and the potential issues that could emerge make it a serious consideration.

As the statistics above demonstrate, lots of us invest emotional energy in documenting our lives on social media and the multitude of posts on a deceased relative’s social media account can be a great source of comfort as you remember their life.

There are three options open to executors in dealing with this digital legacy, but as ever before acting you must check if your loved one left instructions. This has become an integral part of discussions I have with clients when they’re writing or reviewing their Will and of course includes login credentials. It’s hugely important to remove the guesswork for those left behind.

The first option is to keep accounts open, but this does leave them vulnerable to hacking. At a time of high emotion, this could be a painful outcome and digital memories could be lost forever. It can be an open invitation to scammers skilled in identity theft.

A more appealing route might be to memorialise accounts and most of the platforms allow this. The way the profile works and is presented will change and it will be made clear the person is now deceased. This immediately makes an account more private and only those who knew the deceased can find it and share memories.

The final option is to delete an account and the method of doing so varies between platforms. Usually you will need a username, email address, full name and proof of both death and your relationship to the deceased.

As ever with tech issues, you’re dealing across international jurisdictions and although things have improved over the last year, dealing with Apple for example was always problematic. The pace of digital change is swift and the legal world needs to keep up with it. It really wasn’t long ago that the only tech issue for solicitors winding up an estate revolved around iTunes.

On top of the clearly sentimental issues around social media, there is the thorny issue of digital assets such as cryptocurrencies. Most people will have heard of Bitcoin, but there are many brands and new ones are continuously appearing. Many estates now include assets with a tangible value that can only be accessed digitally.

This means I return to the age-old mantra of communication. Without the relevant and securely stored information, such as passwords, usernames and in the case of cryptocurrencies the private keys, assets could be lost online. Solicitors have a crucial role in ensuring executors carry out their duties with the minimum of difficulty. The digital age makes it more complicated and it means reviewing and updating your Will is essential to make it fit for purpose.

Andrew Paterson is a Partner, Murray Beith Murray

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