As the majority of us now have an increasingly large online presence, Eleanor discusses the importance of ensuring that your “digital footprint” is dealt with in the event of death.
As a wills and probate specialist, I am increasingly asked to comment upon the “digital legacies” that people leave when they pass away. Over time, the internet has become a more and more integral part of our lives, and it naturally follows that the lives people lead online need to be considered and dealt with, after their deaths.
Most people these days have one or more email accounts as well as accounts with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites. Many of us also choose to do our banking and shopping online. We download vast amounts of music, books, articles, films and so on, and keep these on our computers, e-readers, smartphones…. the list goes on! Online gaming is also increasingly popular and gamers use “bitcoins”, a digital form of currency which can be used for online transactions. Digital game characters and “avatars” can also acquire a value of their own as they acquire skills, points, weapons etc.
So, what happens when someone passes away? This is a complicated question, as our digital footprints are so far-reaching. As this is also a relatively new area, the law regarding how we deal with our digital legacy is not yet entirely clear and is likely to develop over time.
With our social media sites, if our families do not know our passwords and therefore cannot access these to close them when we pass away, the sites will simply continue. There is the risk that accounts could be hacked into, which could cause great upset to friends and relatives. Often, messages of condolence are left on social media sites; you might want this to happen, as it could give comfort to your family. On the other hand, this could be seen as an intrusion of privacy.
To ensure all accounts can be dealt with on your death, it is advisable to leave a list of your accounts and passwords in a letter. You could also include in this letter details of any wishes you have regarding whether your accounts should remain open for messages of condolences to be posted. Your family can then take the appropriate steps, in accordance with your wishes.
You should make sure that details of your online banking accounts and any websites you have registered with for online shopping, are included in your list. This will enable your family to close these accounts, and cancel any direct debit payments relating to them.
For gaming credits, bitcoins and characters, again, ensure details of your passwords are noted in the letter left with your will and leave clear instructions about what you would like to happen to these items.
When it comes to our digital downloads of music, books etc., it is important to be aware that these may not in fact belong to you. The company you have purchased the items from may simply be licensing the items to you, and you may be unable to pass the item on to someone else when you die. If your thoughts are that you would like to leave your digital music library, for instance, to a specific person when you die, you should make sure you read the small print to check whether this will be possible. If necessary, speak to the relevant company to see if it is possible for you to pass your licence to someone else and what you need to do to make this happen.
It is obviously important to ensure that your list of accounts and passwords is kept in a safe place, for security reasons. My recommendation would be to store the list with your will, and to keep your will in a secure location such as your solicitor’s strong-room or at your bank (most solicitors and banks will store wills free of charge). It is sensible to make your executors aware of where your will is stored.
There are online companies who provide a facility (for a charge) for uploading passwords and other data to their sites, to be passed on after your death. I would advise caution in relation to these, as online fraud is becoming more and more prevalent and these sites seem likely to be a prime target for hackers.
Finally, it is important to keep your list of passwords and wishes up to date! Most of us change our passwords and subscribe to new sites on a regular basis. When this happens, your list should obviously be updated so your family have the right information when you pass away.
The American author Amy Jo Martin said “…most of us have already left a digital footprint, whether we like it or not.” With this in mind, it seems likely that taking steps to deal properly with your digital legacy will soon become an integral part of putting your personal affairs in order, along with making your will.