As technology evolves, so does the way we store information and keep our most personal and cherished possessions. Has this ever left you pondering what happens to your social media accounts or digital assets when you pass away?
Over the past decade we have seen the continued rise of social media and the steady growth of virtual assets. With many people now storing an enormous amount of their personal property online, Will makers are increasingly being advised to leave clear instructions in relation to their digital legacies.
Although it can be seen as trivial to deal with virtual assets in your succession planning, digital property constitutes a far greater proportion of your estate than you may realise.
What are digital legacies?
‘Digital legacies’ are broad and comprise of things of value that are accumulated in the online environment. Digital legacies include:
- social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram or LinkedIn
- email accounts, including Gmail
- blogs and licensed domain names
- music, photos, or other files that you store online or in clouds
- seller’s accounts on PayPal, Amazon or eBay
- characters generated in computer games, and
- access to financial accounts or utilities.
Many of these online accounts, businesses, websites and some social media pages have the ability to produce income and therefore are considered to be part of your overall financial portfolio. Further, they can be of sentimental value where the account includes photos, memories or messages related to the deceased.
Online accounts such as iTunes or e-book collections have value to the account holder in the form of music and books purchased and stored in the account. These accounts present a different legal issue as the account holder generally only pays for a licence to use the content, such as the music or book, and does not own the content itself. Where this is the case, the licence is generally non-transferrable in the terms and conditions agreed to by the account holder before using the service. Where these rights are non-transferable, they cannot be given to another person upon the account holder’s death.
Facebook is one social media network which has acknowledged the increased importance of a digital legacy in modern society. There are estimates that up to around 8,000 Facebook users die daily,1 making dealing with this asset a very tangible issue for both social media providers and users alike.
Facebook has integrated an option into every account (of which there were 1.86 billion in December 2016), that allows the user to nominate a ‘legacy contact’, being someone to take over your account when they die. The legacy contact can control several aspects of the deceased’s profile, such as their profile picture, write special headline posts, and accept or deny new friend requests.
In the past, Facebook would freeze the accounts of deceased persons. However, this new option now allows users to designate a person who will receive limited posthumous access to their account. Changes like this in the approach of social media providers highlights the growing importance people place on how their online accounts are treated after they die.
Although most of your online accounts do not pass through your Will, it is important to consider what you want to happen to your own personal digital legacy.
We suggest people leave clear instructions about what should happen to their online accounts after their death. This may include recording all online accounts, email addresses and passwords in a document such as a letter of wishes. The records can then be included with other important documents for handling by an executor. Details such as account passwords should not be included within a Will, as a Will may eventually be viewed by multiple parties, any may become a matter of public record if a grant of representation is sought.
Having a list of all your online accounts, such as email, banking and social networking sites makes it easier for family members to work out your digital legacy and adhere to your wishes, which could overall save significant time and money. This will also ensure that important or sentimental material is not lost to your family upon your death.
Emma Woolley is a partner at Hall & Wilcox