12th May 2021
As more and more of our lives are conducted online, there’s increasing interest in how digital assets are dealt with when we die.
These assets may or may not be valuable other than sentimentally, but would include things such as online photos, music libraries, social network profiles or email accounts.
In many cases, these profiles and accounts are ours and it would be natural to assume that we have the right to do with them as we wish.
Most people understand what happens to their physical property after death – it passes on in accordance with a Will or be sold on the winding up of an estate. But with the tech revolution, however, a new category of digital assets now exists, and most people are not so clear on what happens to them after we die.
Who can access our Facebook or LinkedIn Account when we die? What happens to someone’s digital photos and music after death?
The law on transferring digital assets is not so clear and ‘digital assets’ in death have not been defined in UK legislation, or dealt with by any specific legal regime.
You may think that the person who owns the file can grant authority for someone, such as their executor, to access that file on their death, but that is not correct. That authority lies with the organisation which provides the account, such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple.
Each social media platform and digital company have their own post-death rules, and most are quite strict (particularly US-based platforms who are concerned about privacy laws).
Here the account dies with you and it will not be passed on to your beneficiaries. They offer to wipe the account clean, but if you do not wish to do that, or require digital content from the account, then you will need to make an application to court for access to the icloud. This is a formal legal application, supported by evidence and payment of a court fee.
Facebook operates a legacy contact facility, where you can nominate someone to have a discussion with Facebook on your death, take copies of what is on there and delete the account or memorialisation service, which makes people aware that you have died but your account is still active.
Similar to Facebook, Google operates an inactive account manager facility.
So, what should we do with our online assets?
Disputes can arise after death, such as information being “lost” after an account has expired, others claiming ownership over copyrighted and other protected digital materials, distribution of the assets, unauthorised access to an account and theft of the person’s identity.
So, we should have an inventory of our digital assets and accounts - with login details - although this must be kept secure pre-death to avoid unauthorised access.
We should add a direction in our will about who should be the beneficiary of any digital content, so that once your Executor has accessed them they are passed to whom you want to receive them.
Do we own what we think we own?
Think how many times we have to agree to terms and conditions when using online services, which mean that we are restricted in our use of these digital assets.
In some cases, we agree to using a licence, especially with online music, which may not be ours to pass on, although it is yours if stored on your device.
The same can be said of photos that we upload to some social networking sites. Some sites tend to state in their terms and conditions that they own any content that you upload. But the images on your device are yours.
The law in these areas is not always straightforward, so to understand your digital assets early may save a great deal of time and heartache for your loved ones down the line.
For more information contact Emily Prout on firstname.lastname@example.org