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What happens to email, social media, & other online accounts when someone dies?

Most people only consider their material assets when it comes to making a Will. Houses, cars, savings, personal possessions, etc. are all high on the list of things to gift or assign should you pass away. But what happens to all our online assets and accounts, i.e. our ‘Digital Estate’?

This includes things like photos on our mobile phones, facebook pages, and online accounts for a whole range of social media apps and websites. In most cases there may only be content in your Digital Estate, e.g. postings, emails, and pictures. But increasingly people have financial assets that are purely online such as betting and gambling accounts, paid for gaming apps, and cryptocurrencies e.g. bitcoin.

So should we be including information on all of these accounts and assets in our Will? If the answer is yes, then what information should we list?

There are really two essential things that everyone should think seriously about:

1. Should I be keeping a list of all online, digital and social media accounts? And where should I be keeping this list?

2. What do I want to happen to these accounts when I pass away?

In answer to the first question then we recommend that everybody keeps an up-to-date and detailed list of their Digital Estate. This can be a simple list such as the name of the account, the website address, and possibly even your account name (i.e. your name as it appears to everyone, for example, email address, facebook name or twitter name). This is all effectively in the public domain anyway, so keeping a list is not a security issue.

At Else Solicitors we ask all our Wills & Probate clients if they would like to keep a list of their Digital Estate with their Will (and if necessary in storage with us). This will then help the executors manage both your traditional estate and your digital estate in the event of your passing away.

Note that I’ve not mentioned passwords yet! And there is good reason for this, which brings me on to the second point in relation to what happens to accounts when someone passes away.

You may think that it would be perfectly acceptable for a next of kin or executor of a Will to go into a mobile phone or online account for somebody who has passed away. But at the moment this is illegal, and Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 it may be a criminal offence for someone else to use your password, even if you have died.

Unfortunately this is an area where the law has not quite caught up with technology and I have no doubt that important guidelines will be set as more and more cases are heard. The other difficulty is that it seems every website / social media site has a different procedure for registering and dealing with the death of a user. So you cannot rely on being able to take the same action every time. At the moment it is simply a case of finding out what those procedures are and following them.

As a result we do not recommend keeping passwords in your Digital Estate list. Even if they were included, then executors or next of kin would in theory not be legally allowed to access them directly. What they should do is contact the account or service provider and inform them of your death and any instructions you left in your Will.

You should also think about what you want to happen with those accounts after your death – are they to be closed down and the contents deleted? Or the contents passed on as far as they are able to be? Many social media pages can be memorialised after someone dies – would you want this to be done?

Making a Will and thinking about your death is never an easy thing to do, but in this digital world it is important to consider your Digital Estate just as much as any other asset you own. At Else Solicitors we encourage all of our clients to think about their Digital Estate and provide a document template for them to complete and keep alongside their Will.

For more information on Digital Estates and what to do with them in relation to your Will, then please contact Kathryn Caple, Head of Wills and Probate at Else Solicitors, by email: kathryn.caple@elselaw.co.uk or directly on 01283 526230.