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Death in cyberspace: What happens to your digital legacy?

We are creating digital legacies for ourselves every hour of every day. More and more of us are living our lives online, banking, shopping and socialising. We can now store information on a network of remote servers in the cloud rather than a local server. It is thought that the next generation will be truly digital.

How many passwords or online accounts do you own?  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal, the list is endless.  Who else has access to these accounts and who would you like to have access when you die?

Are digital assets such as emails, software, websites, social media accounts, downloaded content and online gaming identities the same as tangible assets such as your home and your car and are they treated the same when your estate is administered?  

Did you know that if your executors or family members continue to use your passwords to access your accounts they could be in breach of many websites’ terms of service and committing criminal acts under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.  If they remove money from your online accounts they could also be committing fraud.

So what did you agree to when you skipped to the bottom of the terms of service and ticked agree without reading it fully?

Online bank accounts

Your online bank accounts can be frozen and closed in the same way as your other bank accounts as long as their existence is known to your executors. 

Shopping accounts, eBay and PayPal

Your executors can close your PayPal account after death on the production of your death certificate, your Will and their photo identification and any funds held in your account will be paid to your estate.

An eBay account cannot be transferred and is closed on production of a death certificate.  If eBay is not notified of the death, any sales that take place after death could be disputed for lack of delivery.

Shopping sites can sometimes contain personal and banking details, so these should be closed.  Points collected on loyalty cards can sometimes be transferred, Tesco clubcard points and Nectar points can both be passed to beneficiaries.

Each airline and air mile point system has different rules and some allow accumulated points to be transferred where as others cancel the account and the points are lost.

Email accounts

Email accounts held with Apple’s iCloud will be deleted on the death of the owner.  Yahoo accounts are non-transferable and any rights will terminate on death.  Action will not be taken until the death certificate has been received. 

Google’s Inactive account manager can be told what you wish to do with your data, either transferring to a family member or deleting it, after a period of inactivity.  Gmail, Google+, Picasa and YouTube can be dealt with in this way but Google Play cannot be transferred or assigned to anyone else without authorisation.

Photos, blogs and emails

Most digital assets have sentimental value such as photos, emails and blogs.  I have only two pictures of my children on my wall but thousands of photographs in online galleries.  Photographs have an enormous emotional value and these treasured memories could be lost when you die unless your loved ones know where to find them.

Music, books and films

In Britain holdings of digital music are worth millions of pounds but it is not only music that we keep online.  Books and films that once upon a time you would have purchased in a physical form are now downloaded and kept online.  But did you know that your large and expensive iTunes library and your collection of Harry Potter books are not yours to keep and leave to your family or friends.  Under the terms of service of iTunes and Kindle you are only granted a personal licence to listen, watch or read the material and this right cannot be transferred to anyone else at any time including your death.

Social media

The option of adding a Facebook ‘legacy contact’, someone with the power to manage your page on your death, has just been rolled out across the US.  Those not in the US can have their Facebook page ‘memorialised’ where your privacy settings are altered to allow friends to see your profile and add comments to your wall.  This can be a comfort for some people but upsetting for others so your account can also be removed on the production of a death certificate. 

Your Twitter account is deleted on proof of your death.  LinkedIn have a downloadable verification of death form.  Your account again can be closed down or memorialised.  If memorialised, the access to your profile is restricted and the message function is removed.

Other digital assets

Many people spend hours of their life playing online games such as World of Warcraft building up weapons, skills, wealth and levels of experience for their online characters.  These online gaming accounts cannot be transferred.

Bitcoins, a virtual currency, can be traded on exchanges across the world and are stored in a Bitcoin wallet.  The wallet can only be accessed with a specific address and a passphrase.  As Bitcoins are usually kept secret they can be easily overlooked or destroyed. 

Failing to notify online gambling websites could mean money in the account is lost.

So what can you do to make the administration of your digital assets easier?

Make a directory of your online banks, online shopping, social media, gaming accounts, gambling accounts, email accounts, professional directories, virtual currency and other websites you have signed up to.

Store the directory with your Will as a Letter of Wishes.  Do not put passwords in your Will, chances are you will change passwords more often than you update your Will.  Also when you die, if a Grant of Probate is required to administer your estate your Will becomes a public document.  A Letter of Wishes, on the other hand, is not part of the Will and is not a public document.

Use your directory to stipulate what you wish to do with all of your accounts.  Do you want your Facebook or LinkedIn page memorialised?  Do you want your email accounts closed?  Shopping sites that you may use may hold personal and banking details so make sure these accounts are deactivated.

Keep your directory updated.  You may open more accounts and join more websites as time goes on so make sure your directory is kept up to date.

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