Personal identity

Digital life after death: three things to consider today

Related articles

Doors, windows, and cybercrime - 14 ways in

Click to explore >

Child protection online: is it time for a new approach?

Click to explore >

Speed read

  • Executors who log on to your online accounts using your username and password after your death may be committing a criminal offence
  • Be cautious about writing down your passwords; many websites’ terms and conditions prohibit you from sharing your details with others
  • Keep an up-to-date list of your online accounts to help relatives track down valuable or personal assets.

From cryptocurrencies and share trading to social media and medical records, both financial and personal assets are increasingly held online. But what happens to these intangible digital assets when their owner dies? How can they be recovered and transferred to rightful inheritors?

These assets, along with our similarly intangible online identities, have added another dimension to the inheritance process. Yet only one third of people in the UK will leave a will[1]. In some cases, there is not enough left to trigger probate[2]. In others, assets are divided up according to the law, which may not be according to their owners’ wishes.

If no will or instructions are left behind, tracking down and closing accounts, claiming any financial benefit or downloading items of personal significance like photographs will be extremely challenging for next-of-kin. It gets even more complicated if you’re making large sums of money from the internet, as a blogger or a YouTube star for example.

So what do we need to know about what happens to our digital world when we die?

1. Don’t just pass on your login details

“People should be cautious if they want to write down their passwords, as many websites’ terms and conditions prohibit you from passing on your login details to other people,” says Alan Cheung, a paralegal at Rocket Lawyer[3]. “Executors who log on to your online accounts using your username and password after your death may be committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.”

For security and data privacy reasons, you can’t just pass on your sign-in details to someone else – even if it’s just for your social media account, he says. “Downloading photos or videos after someone’s death is actually a crime and transferring any money from their financial accounts, even if it is ultimately to be yours, is fraud.”

2. If you make money online, protect it

If you’re a massive YouTube star, the chances are you’ve incorporated yourself into a business and it’s the company that owns the account, so you’re protected.

But if what you’re earning is just a good wage, you might not think to do that. Perhaps you’re a fitness guru with a relatively successful line of yoga videos hosted by YouTube. Your revenue is derived from the advertising alongside those videos. So while the videos themselves are an asset and would go to the next-of-kin, your followers would be lost when YouTube closes the account after your death. Even if your inheritor opened a new YouTube account and posted the videos again, they would be unlikely to recapture that revenue stream.

“Legal precedents will be established as the cases come through,” says Neil Fraser, a partner at international probate research firm Fraser and Fraser.

“But what’s really important is that people are fully aware of the terms and conditions of every site that they use.”

If you’re earning a decent online income and you have a reasonable assumption of that continuing after death, then protect it for your inheritors by investigating how to pass it on.

3. Make a list, check it twice

While keeping a list of sign-in details for every online account is a security no-no, having a list of each of your online accounts, possibly with just the username, is the top recommendation.

“People keep lists of the stocks and shares they own and update it for me each year,” says Clare Harris, senior solicitor at Greenwoods Solicitors. “They should do the same for their online accounts.”

It can be extremely difficult to track down even financial accounts after death if surviving family members don’t know about them. There are companies that specialise in tracing missing assets like bank accounts, stocks and shares, but tracking down every online account that people sign up to would be a monumental task. There is a chance that it will become easier following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe this year, but for now, the best advice is to keep an up-to-date list of your accounts. This not only helps relatives to track down valuable or personal assets, but also helps to stop cybercrime like identity theft and fraud.

Sources

[1] https://business.unbiased.co.uk/press-releases/fewer-people-in-the-uk-have-wills-in-place-than-last-year-with-nearly-four-in-ten-over-55s-having-no-will-at-all-26-9-2016.

[2] http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/for-the-public/common-legal-issues/probate/