Why is it becoming more important to consider digital legacy? Well, most of us communicate some way or another through digital channels every single day. The average time spent using the internet in the UK is just under five and a half minutes with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all featuring in the top 20 most visited sites.
This is not too surprising, but what is, is the number of social media accounts the average internet user has. According to latest research from the GlobalWebIndex, the number of accounts has risen from an average of three in 2012 to now 7. The growth of multiple accounts is not limited to social media either. According to research from The Radicati Group, over the next four years, the average number of email accounts per user ratio will grow from 1.5 to 1.9.
That’s quite a jump, and potentially a real headache when somebody dies. There are stories of families struggling to access email accounts, social media profiles left publicly visible, and even online investments that remain unknown.
So, how important is it to leave a digital legacy?
‘Digital legacy’ is a rather ambiguous term, but it generally refers to all our digital property that we leave behind when we die. Where property exists in a digital format, it is considered a digital asset and typically falls into one of the following categories:
- Social media accounts
- Email accounts
- Media (photos, videos, music)
- Online payment/bank accounts
- Online reward points
- Crypto-currencies (e.g. bitcoin)
Unlike other assets, the rights to digital assets are less straightforward. However, there are some very practical things you can do to make the process less complicated.
Who can access and own my digital assets after I die?
If the executor of your estate provides proof of death, it’s much easier to close an account. But accessing the content can be difficult.
Social media sites and email providers are notoriously difficult to get hold of. These accounts are all password protected and there’s no ‘local branch’ for a loved one to hand a death certificate to. For security reasons, you’re best not to write these passwords down. So, what are your options?
Make a list of all your digital assets
Whether you’re planning on making a Will or not, it’s a good idea to make a list of all your digital assets (accounts), using the categories mentioned above. Don’t forget financial accounts, air miles and especially any images stored on iCloud or DropBox. Each account is likely to hold valuable assets; whether personal or financial.
Find a way to safely store your passwords
Unless you have somewhere safe you can store your passwords, you might want to consider a digital solution. We know it sounds ironic, but there are several single-point online password storage solutions. For example, LastPass, remembers all your passwords, so you don’t have to. There’s no need to write-down all your passwords. You can also grant emergency one-time access to your LastPass vault to another user, which could be the executor of your estate.
Of course, how you choose to store your passwords is entirely up to you and if you want those accounts to be accessible as part of your digital legacy.
What happens to my social media accounts and emails after I die?
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will delete an account of someone who has died. However, they’ll require proof of death and the authority of the person making the request.
Facebook allows accounts to be ‘memorialised’ so that confirmed Facebook friends can view their profile. But accounts can only be memorialised if you have designated a Facebook Friend as a ‘legacy contact’ in your settings. If you feel uncomfortable with your page being memorialised, you can check the preference for ‘delete after death’. It’s entirely up to you. Instagram can also memorialise accounts.
With Twitter, on the other hand, the only option when someone dies, is to have an account deactivated.
Google has launched a tool that enables users to decide what happens to the data stored in Google Mail and some other Google accounts, in the event of the user’s death. This tool allows you to decide whether your account should be automatically closed after a specified period of inactivity; or whether the data should be passed to a named person.
Accessing Outlook.com, OneDrive and other Microsoft services when someone has died is less straightforward. The account will close when there has been two years of inactivity. However, if you have shared access to your account, somebody can close an account. If they do not have access, it’s far more difficult. Microsoft must be formally served with a valid court order to release a deceased or incapacitated user’s information.
It’s important to remember though, that social network policies change all the time and each policy will differ from one company to another. The main point to take away is that with each company, your loved one will need to provide proof of death and proof of their entitlement to deal with the deceased’s affairs (e.g. Grant of Probate).
What about other, less obvious digital assets?
Points that you’ve accrued on reward schemes can be valuable, but if you check the terms and conditions of those schemes, you’ll find you do not ‘own’ the rewards. Having said that though, some are transferable.
For example, at the time of writing this article, Nectar points can be transferred to another Nectar Account on death if ‘adequate evidence of the legal division of points’ is provided.
Likewise, some air miles may well be transferable, but this very much depends on the company.
Bank accounts, investments and cryptocurrencies
The most important digital assets to carefully consider when you pass are those that may have a financial value. Banks typically tend to have very comprehensive policies for when a customer dies. But there are many other accounts that now contain money and the policies for these can vary considerably.
PayPal, for instance - an easy one to forget - will require evidence that one of their customers has died. They will close the account and transfer the balance to the executor of your estate or someone else named in your Will.
You might be a creative who makes commission from various websites on your photography or artwork. Or perhaps, you’ve invested into a cryptocurrency communal software project.
If you do not leave a physical record of an account, your family may never even know about it.
What steps should I take to secure my digital legacy?
If you have a Will, you can make things a little easier for the executor of your estate by actioning the following:
- Make a list of all your digital assets and understand the terms and conditions for each digital service provider so that you know what happens if you were to die.
- In writing your list, write down what you would like to happen with each one in the event of your death, especially where any money may be contained within an account. Your solicitor will be able to advise you further on this.
- Make sure the executor of your estate can locate the log-in details for your accounts. Passwords cannot be stored within a Will.
As we write, digital legacies are still very much a recent advancement in probate law and there’s still very little legislation. Given the nature of the internet and varying policies of providers, it’s currently impossible for peoples online wishes to be legally binding.
However, you can include a statement of preferences within your Will with details on each of your digital assets, which will take the pressure off your loved ones.