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Digital Inheritance - What Happens to Our Online Lives When We Die?

5 min read
Digital assets and digital inheritance: What happens?

Our lives are increasingly being lived out online. Every day we log in to an ever-growing number of online platforms and accounts, creating substantial digital legacies all the while.

We spend money, upload photos and broadcast our thoughts and personalities online. These digital footprints that we leave across the web are likely to be present within the digi-sphere long after we've left the physical world. But what exactly happens to our online lives when we die?

It's an issue that's come up in the media recently after Facebook was responsible for the so-called 'digital deaths' of nearly two million of its users, including Facebook's very own CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Many users were surprised to log into their accounts to find that their profiles had been mistakenly 'memorialised' and contained a variant of the following message:

“Remembering Mark Zuckerberg: We hope people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life.”

Confusing, and perhaps a little unnerving when you are, in fact, very much alive. But this humorous mistake by Facebook leads to a far more serious topic: how much control do we actually have over what happens to our online lives after we die? Well, the law around digital assets is murky to say the least, but it really depends on the assets in question.

Types of digital asset

As identified by Gary Rycroft, the chair of the Law Society's digital assets working group, in the majority of cases our digital assets can be broken down into one of three categories. These are:

Assets with Monetary Value: The contents of online bank accounts, PayPal accounts and online currencies such as Bitcoin would be good examples of this.

Assets with Social Value: Social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram fall into this category. 

Assets with Emotional Value: Our iTunes music library, eBooks or media accounts like Flickr or YouTube are part of this category.

Those assets with monetary value are under your ownership, therefore they can be passed on in your will as any physical asset would be. You should, however, make sure that the intended beneficiaries are aware of their existence so they are not lost. Assets with social and emotional value, on the other hand, are more difficult to protect and pass on.

We're probably all a little guilty of failing to read the Terms and Conditions of the online accounts we sign up for. Most of them will say that any content posted using the platform in question is under the control of the service provider, not the person who posted it. This can make passing on this content, and controlling it after death, more difficult.

Similarly, you may believe that you own some assets with emotional value, such as an iTunes library. However, what the individual actually has in this case is a license to use that music during their lifetime, meaning it can't be passed on to beneficiaries. All these terms and conditions can vary significantly from platform to platform.

Protecting your digital assets

The law in this area is rapidly evolving. Whilst it's not always possible to pass on digital accounts in your will due to the reasons outlined above, you do have the right to have a say in what happens to them. In order to exercise this right, you should prepare a letter to be kept alongside your will which stipulates what you would like to happen to your online presence following your death.

If you would like your loved ones to be able to access your accounts and their contents, you should make a digital directory which sets out all of your account details, usernames and passwords. Don't assume that your loved ones already know which accounts you will have, as this is often not the case.

Some social media sites already have systems in place to deal with the deaths of users. On Facebook, for example, you can use their 'Legacy Contact' feature to assign a contact to who will be able to access certain aspects of your profile after your death. It's a good idea to set this up if you wish to make the transition easier for friends and family.

Due to the sensitive nature of your online account details, it's important that your letter of wishes for your digital life is kept safe. It is therefore a good idea to keep this letter alongside your will in a secure environment. At Giles Wilson we have a highly secure storage facility for our clients' wills and legal documentation. If you would like to learn more about making a will or protecting your digital assets, you can arrange a free 30-minute consultation with our highly experienced solicitors by calling 01702 477106.

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