Every day, we switch on, log on and seem to conduct more and more of our lives online – from banking to communicating with friends and family and pretty much everything in between.
The ownership of, and access to our “digital lives” can be complicated and uncertain. For example, how much money is your iTunes of Kindle collection worth? And when you press “yes” to download, have you simply assumed that by doing so you are adding music or books to your own collection?
Access to Facebook and Twitter is restricted by password – would you want someone to be able to access your account after your death and close the account? How about your emails and Instagram account, and what about that “never share your passwords” rule...
It is impossible at the moment to point to any definitive legislation about the treatment of digital assets. The law has yet to catch up with advances in technology. Each provider of any online service (be it email, photos, music, or social media) will have their own terms and conditions (to which we agree when we sign up). If you owned the physical books, CDs, records and letters, these would all form part of your estate and control would vest in your executor or administrator. But all that digital information is intangible, and far more difficult to define.
Google has recently announced a new facility for Gmail in which messages and data are either sent to a nominated person or deleted after a period of inactivity on the account. The Google public policy blog says that an account holder can nominate to whom messages and data should be sent after a nominated period of inactivity. Twitter states that it will co-operate with a person acting on behalf of an estate to deactivate an account, but will not provide access to an account. Facebook will not provide login information after a person’s death but will allow the account either to be memorialised or for the profile to be removed.
Both Facebook and Google have been taken to court in the US by the parents of Benjamin Stassen who committed suicide in 2010. His parents wanted access to his accounts and both Google and Facebook had refused to provide this on the grounds that it was a breach of privacy for the account user. The court ordered that access be allowed – Google complied, but Facebook did not.
There are steps you can take however, until legislation catches up with technology. If you have made a Will (or are thinking about doing so), or even if you have not, take a moment to list all of your digital activities – email, banking, shopping, photos, social media, twitter etc. Make a list of your account details, email addresses and login details and decide whom you would like to access this information, and what you would like them to do with it. Create a spreadsheet, or letter of wishes, or file on your computer and tell your executors how to access it if need be. If you create a letter of wishes, make sure that it is kept with your Will – you can update the letter as and when you need to, rather than having to update the Will itself.
Whilst this is an area of law that will keep changing, taking some steps now to think about your digital legacy will provide your executors with a starting point to deal with that legacy.
This is intended for general information only and should not be considered as giving advice in relation to any individual case nor be taken as applying to any particular case. No liability is accepted for any such use of the information.