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Protecting your online assets

12 May 2016

As part of Dying Matters Awareness Week, Gary Rycroft writes about what happens to your digital assets after death, and how to protect them.

Technology and social practices have changed massively in the past 25 years, and so has the law.

When thinking about your will, all of these factors should be taken into consideration.

Most people have a digital aspect to their life, whether it's social media profiles, online banking and shopping accounts, or documents stored in the cloud with web-based services such as Google Drive or Dropbox.

But what happens to your digital life when you die? And what legal rights do you and your beneficiaries have?

There are three things to think about when it comes to your digital and online life:

1. Digital assets with financial value such as online banking, PayPal, online shopping accounts, cryptocurrencies (for example Bitcoin)
You own these assets so you should make sure they are not lost to your beneficiaries. How would your loved ones know what your online assets are and where they can be found?

2. Digital assets with social value such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn
This is where it starts to get a bit murky in terms of your legal rights. Do you own the content of your social media? You may have written much of it or taken the photos uploaded, but the use of it is controlled by the service provider. So if you die you need to say who should have access to it and control of it. What would you like to happen to your social media - should it be closed down or memorialised and who should sort that out?

3. Digital assets with sentimental value such as Flickr, YouTube and iTunes
 You are unlikely to own these kinds of asset and so there may be difficulty passing them on to loved ones who may want to keep them. How would you feel if your photos were lost and your loved ones could no longer view them? 

You have the legal right to pass on digital assets with financial value to your chosen beneficiaries and you have the legal right to manage the deactivation, memorialisation or removal of your digital social life, but you need to take steps to exercise your rights by making a will.

The cost of not acting could potentially be massive. Research by YouGov found 52 per cent of us said no one would be able to access their digital accounts if they died because they had not left any arrangements about what should happen.

A will allows you to name executors who will be in charge of sorting everything out when you die, on behalf of your estate and making sure any liabilities are paid and what there is left after that is passed on to your beneficiaries.

Next, make a digital directory that contains details of all of your online assets, social media accounts, logins and passwords. It should be regularly updated. This will allow your executors to be able to trace your assets and pass them on to your beneficiaries. This can be held securely with your solicitor.

Digital assets with sentimental value can be the most difficult to sort out, but can be the most important for those left behind. Unfortunately many online applications such as Flickr, YouTube and iTunes are accessed under licence agreements, so you do not have the legal right to pass them on to your chosen beneficiaries.

They are not tangible assets you can pass on to your beneficiaries like photographs or CDs would be. So take practical steps such as making sure you have back ups or hard copies of items you want beneficiaries to view after your death. Remember you should also list them in a digital directory.

If you have any questions about protecting your digital assets and your social profiles, you should speak to a solicitor

Visit our Find a Solicitor website

Find out more about making a will

Learn more about Dying Matters

Tags: social media | wills

About the author

Gary Rycroft is a partner at Joseph A Jones and Co solicitors. He is a member of various Law Society committees, including the Private Client Section's advisory committee, the Wills and Equity Committee, and the digital assets working group. He contributes regularly to local and national media and is the resident legal expert on the BBC1 consumer affairs programme, Rip Off Britain.
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