Legal experts say users of social media accounts, online banks and e-mail must consider whether they want them deleted or memorialised after their death.
One Scottish law firm is now advising clients to make a “digital legacy” instructing relatives what to do with their online presence, alongside their traditional will. This outlines whether they want social media profiles closed or turned into memorial sites.
Lawyers say the subject has now become a “flashpoint” for grieving families who cannot agree what to do with Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and e-mails when a loved one dies. Other experts warn those writing their wills should consider leaving instructions to delete accounts they would rather remain secret.
The average Scot now has 26 online accounts, which can include Facebook, Twitter, youtube, LinkedIn, Instagram, bank accounts and gaming site memberships.
Peter Littlefield, partner at law firm Turcan Connell, said debates about what to do with social media accounts among relatives were now becoming a source of added distress.
His firm advises keeping a current list of online accounts, rather than revealing passwords. After death, the executor of the will can access the accounts by contacting the site owners and producing a death certificate. He said: “The issue we are finding is that when someone dies there’s a lot of confusion. For example, a Facebook account can be closed or it can be memorialised. The process is simple but if the deceased has not told anyone about their wishes, that decision can be a flashpoint for family members..
“Things like photographs, which are of sentimental value, these tend to be the things that families fight over.
“E-mail accounts can also be closed, or e-mails can be accessed,” he added.
“What we are saying is that people making a will need to consider inheritance tax, power of attorney and digital legacy. Their instructions for what they want done with their online accounts can go in a separate document beside the will.”
Over 70 per cent of those using the internet also use social media accounts. Over 35 million people worldwide update their Facebook status every day and there are 2.5 billion photo uploads to the site every month. Billions of photographs are also held on sites including Instagram, flickr and Photobucket, rather than the traditional albums family members may once have argued over. LinkedIn has 50 million members and Twitter has 15 million regular users.
Paul Golding, founder of digital legacy advice firm Cirrus Legacy said the crucial rule was to keep a record, signposting relatives to online accounts.
“Digital legacy is more than just social media,” he said. “It includes financial data such as online banks and paypal, gaming sites or frequent flyer accounts. “There are sentimental issues such as youtube videos, online diaries or photographs, but there are also intellectual property issues such as documents stored in data cloud services.
“In terms of the public radar, this concept is very new. However when you talk to people they realise it is something they have not thought about and need to consider.”