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What happens to your online accounts when you die?

 

Article date:  21/11/2013

This article featured in PC Advisor in September 2103 and is reproduced with their kind permission.

It might be something that many of us prefer to keep at the back of our minds, but there are times when we need to give some thought to what happens after we die. Even when we do consider our mortality, though, the fate of our online property is something that often gets overlooked.

Much of this property has sentimental value - for example email folders, photographs and documents stored in the cloud, and our presence on social media sites - but it can also have financial value.

Either way, you probably don't want it to evaporate. You might also want to disable or deactivate an account to prevent, say, people making unwanted posts on a Facebook wall.

Yet succession law is somewhat vague about some types of online property with the result that, unless you've shared your passwords, your relatives or the beneficiaries in your will may be unable to inherit it.

Here we look at what UK law says about the subject, at how the big companies who administer our online assets interpret that law, and at what you can do to ensure that your wishes are met.

What happens to your online accounts when you die: the law

To understand the legal situation we spoke to solicitor Ian Bond, Partner at Higgs & Sons, and Member of the Law Society's Wills & Equity Committee who told us that, according to law in England and Wales, "it is the duty of a personal representative to collect and get in the real and personal estate of the deceased and administer it according to law". "If the deceased had digital assets", he said, "the personal representatives have a duty to protect those assets and collect them for the beneficiaries".

We'll see later how this applies to online assets that have some financial value but, to start, we'll think about online property that has mainly sentimental value. Here, things are rarely as simple as Ian's initial statement might suggest as he went on to explain.

"Digital assets are mostly stored on shared servers; the service providers may be based in a different country from their users, and they may store data on servers in many countries, making it unclear whose laws would apply".

To clarify, he gave an example. "Just because a user dies in London with a Facebook or Twitter account, it doesn't mean that English law will apply in dealing with those digital assets", he explained. "In the absence of clarity on which countries' laws apply, how a digital service-provider deals with an asset following the death of the user becomes a matter for the provider's terms of use. No uniformity exists so, in reality, each separate digital service provider sits in final judgment when it comes to deciding the fate of the digital assets."

To read the full PC Advisor article which features responses from Facebook, Twitter, Google & Apple, click here.

View all articles for 2013

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