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Death in the digital age: Looking after your e-estate


Unsurprisingly the Wills Act 1837 does not cover what happens to your online presence when you die. Harrison Drury’s James Dickinson examines some of the issues.

Everyone understands that when you make a will you are leaving your estate to your loved ones. However, the law is nearly 180 years behind the times when it comes to your Facebook, Twitter, eBay and other online accounts.

It is estimated that by 2060 there will be 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to people who have died, while figures for the UK suggest that only 20% of people have considered what they want to happen to their online presence after they have passed away.

So what currently happens to your online presence when you die?

Various websites have different rules about what happens to your account and who can access it after your death.

Facebook mobile digital

Facebook, for example, lets family or friends ‘memorialise’ your account if that is what you wish, meaning your page remains visible to your existing friends. Alternatively, you can have your account deleted. To make either of these happen, Facebook requires a number of documents, including the death certificate and your will.

To deactivate your Twitter account you will need to provide the same documents required by Facebook, plus a link to a ‘public obituary’ confirming the account holder’s death.

Who can access my email accounts?

Many people see their email account as their correspondence filing cabinet. Some of the material might be sensitive to those you have left behind – and currently what happens to your email accounts is down to chance.

2000px-Yahoo!_icon.svgAs with social media platforms, email service providers operate differently. Gmail does not guarantee access to the account after you have provided them with all the information available, while Microsoft will allow access to the inbox only when they receive your will, death certificate, ID, and other documents. Yahoo, on the other hand, will terminate all access to the email account when you die.

Closing a PayPal account after you have died is even more complex and involves providing them with the same documents required by Microsoft. The kicker is that these must be faxed before PayPal will take action. In an age when fax machines are increasingly few and far between, the problem this creates can easily be imagined.

There are many other areas of our lives where we are active online and this will only grow as the pace of technological development increases.

Why taking action now is important

What, then, can you do right now? It’s best to decide what you want to happen to your accounts when you make your will.

You can create a hard copy document setting out your wishes, along with your username and passwords, which can then be stored securely, and changed without needing to alter the will.

Many websites offer straightforward solutions to these issues, but it is also advisable to discuss your wishes with the professionals who will handle your estate. By telling them about your wishes and how to go about dealing with your ‘online estate’, they can deal with Facebook, Twitter, PayPal and all the others.

As part of our wills and probate service, Harrison Drury have a team of digital lawyers specially trained to deal with issues relating to your e-estate on your behalf. For further information or advice on online issues and your will, call James Dickinson on 01772 258321.

Who do you think has the best policy of dealing with the accounts of an individual after they’ve passed away? Please share your views in the comments section below.

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