Who has the legal rights to your social media and online ‘assets’ after death?

Who has the legal rights to your social media and online ‘assets’ after death?

Robert Webb, partner at Roythornes Solicitors, explains what the law says regarding social media and online accounts and who can claim ownership of your ‘digital assets’.

Despite living resolutely in the Information Age, there is surprisingly little legislation designed to protect what are known as ‘digital assets’ in the event of a person’s death. Whilst there is no formal definition, a digital asset is an asset that has value and can be owned at some point but has no physicality e.g. music, e-books, social media and email accounts.

We use our phones, tablets and PC’s every day for more than just communication: we use them to capture images and videos, create and store documents, listen to music, read books and watch movies. We have social media accounts to share our pictures and videos. We buy and sell through PayPal and eBay. But what happens to our online accounts following our death and, most importantly, who do they then belong to?

Don’t take for granted that digital assets only have a value of sentimentality. From cryptocurrency to .com accounts, there is a value to be accessed, whether it’s a personal account or a business website that generates an income and has a more ‘tangible’ financial value.

So, whilst at present you cannot make a will for your digital assets, there are some things you can do to ensure that the right people have access to them following your death:

General advice

I would suggest you consider what you want others to have access to after death and discuss with them how they will get access. Whilst I am not a security expert, I would caution people against sharing passwords; an alternative option is to store your passwords securely with your solicitor and then ensure they are kept abreast of any updates.

I also suggest having someone you trust be given permission to have access by signing an authority and keeping it with your Will.

Storage can be by way of iCloud accounts (iCloud Keychain for example) and most smartphones offer a cloud-based service to store passwords. Using an external hard drive or memory stick is also another option.

There is potentially a generational gap, in perhaps how people store their passwords. I advise all clients regardless of age to keep a record on paper and electronically of all passwords. Also ensuring a child or children know where passwords are stored is a good way to ensure this information is shared at an appropriate time.

As above, write down and store information with Wills, lasting power of attorney, lawyer, accountant or trusted friend or family member. Use an online account through your phone or computer or an external hard drive to keep personal data.

Emails

Emails are personal and your family may wish to keep them but access may be denied.  As with other accounts upon death, the account may be deleted. Providing your executors with usernames and passwords will help them access accounts. Google has also created a tool which allows you to govern what happens to your accounts when you die, allowing you to name a contact if inactivity occurs and determine whether or not the nominated person can access and keep your data or if the account should be deleted.

Social media accounts

Social media sites will usually delete accounts. However, your family can request that the account become a memorial on the proviso certain information is provided to the platform. Twitter unfortunately will delete the account regardless. To avoid this from happening, provide account details to a trusted person to allow future access.

Many sites will not allow your executors to access your accounts, although there are ongoing developments on some social networks e.g. Facebook, to allow you to select a ‘legacy contact’ i.e. someone who will be able to make decisions and access some information on your account.

Digital music files

Music libraries should be saved to an external hard drive if possible. iTunes accounts are not transferrable and end on death as you no longer comply with the set terms and conditions. There is, however, no further guidance as to what happens following death so consider passing on the account user information to a trusted person or set up a joint account for multiple users.

eBooks

The above also applies to eBooks. Like digital music, the usage licence dies with the user and cannot be transferred. Again, consider giving your family the account details. It is worth noting some e-books are protected by DRM (digital rights management) which prevents copying.

Online Banking

Online bank accounts are usually easily traceable through bank cards and cheque books and are dealt with on incapacity or death in the same way as any traditional bank account. Whether or not attorneys and executors will be able to continue to manage such accounts digitally depends on the terms and conditions of the bank or building society. Most banks have specific departments with trained staff to deal with bereavement, powers of attorney and deputyship.

Online payment accounts

Online payment accounts such as PayPal and Amazon can sometimes contain balances and the existence of these accounts can usually be traced via traditional bank statements, which are linked to these online accounts.

Though such accounts often don’t usually have cash balances, it’s prudent for attorneys and executors to make enquiries, as such accounts can contain refunds and credits from online transactions. Dealing with these entities is generally harder than dealing with high street banks, and more difficult still if the email address that the deceased used in relation to these accounts isn’t known.

Cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies and bitcoins have been around since 2009 marking the start of decentralized blockchain-based digital currencies with no central server, and no tangible assets held in reserve. Also known as cryptocurrencies, blockchain-based digital currencies proved resistant to attempts by the government to regulate them, because there was no central organization or person with the power to turn them off. Because of this, they have been seen as an easy target for criminals. However, it is possible to remove the currency and store it in a safe. By providing your executors with the username and password to your account, the currency can be accessed, and your beneficiaries can inherit your balance.

Until such time that the law has evolved to allow digital asset wills, it is vital to ensure that your executors and beneficiaries have the means to access your digital assets on your death or risk losing them entirely.

For more information and advice on protecting your digital assets, visit www.roythornes.co.uk or follow @roythornes on Twitter.

"It is vital to ensure that your executors and beneficiaries have the means to access your digital assets."

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