The list of online accounts each individual has to their name is growing.
From Instagram and Facebook to online banks, clothing retailers, betting websites, dating profiles and email providers, we’re all amassing huge amounts of personal digital data. One of the questions this poses is what happens to our accounts when we no longer need them? Specifically, what happens to them when we die?
Many online accounts would be of little consequence to our loved ones after our death. Accounts held with online retailers, for example, are unlikely to be of any monetary or sentimental value.
However, many of our digital accounts will be valuable in some way, and loved ones are likely to want to access them after a death. Equally, there may be accounts that family members would want to be deleted after a death, such as dating profiles.
Is there a legal right for family members to access accounts?
In short, no. There is no overriding legal right for family members or personal representatives to be able to access digital accounts belonging to someone who has died.
Whether or not access is possible after death depends on the terms of service of the account in question. Specifically, there are two important clauses:
- Whether the contents of the online account are transferable on death
- Whether it is permitted for other individuals, including personal representatives and family members, to log into the account
Digital assets with clear monetary value, such as the contents of online bank accounts, are generally legally transferrable on death. However, other digital assets such as digital music files may not be. For example, the Apple iCloud terms of service state that iCloud assets cannot be transferred on death:
‘You agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted.’
However, Apple have recently announced that they are adding a ‘legacy contact’ feature to allow users to nominate an individual to access their data in the event of their death. This only appears to include personal data such as photos and emails, not licensed media.
Other digital accounts all have their own policies on how accounts are managed after a death. Many will agree to permanently delete an account if proof of death is provided (usually a copy of the death certificate or proof of ID and a link to an obituary). Others will allow personal representatives to access an account if they have a grant of representation.
Many online account providers do not permit family members or personal representatives to log in to accounts after a death, even if the account holder has left passwords and instructions.
In some cases, personal representatives would have to file a court order to be able to access an account (or be given the option to download personal information). These court orders would likely need to be filed in whatever country the company was based.
What if you don’t want your family to be able to access accounts?
There are many reasons why an individual might not want family members to be able to access their accounts after their death. If this is the case, it would be prudent to take preventative steps well in advance. Some digital accounts, such as Facebook, allow you to request that your account is deleted on your death.
Depending on the situation, if an individual knew they were unlikely to live much longer, they may be able to take action themselves to close accounts and delete data they didn’t want family members to come across.
Of course, in many cases death is unexpected. It’s possible for individuals to prepare in advance by ensuring they have made their wishes known, perhaps in a Letter of Wishes to accompany their Will.
Individuals could also consider appointing a professional executor to administer their estate, with clear instructions to delete and remove online accounts without family members seeing them.
How to prepare for all eventualities
As there are such big differences in the way companies approach access to digital accounts after death, it’s sensible to prepare for all eventualities in advance.
Completing a digital asset log (and keeping it regularly updated) will ensure your personal representatives don’t miss anything when assessing and valuing your estate.
You may also wish to regularly download important personal information to your own computer so that it would be accessible after your death. Most email providers allow you to do this.
We’d also recommend speaking to an experienced probate solicitor about writing a Will (or updating an existing one) to include your wishes for your digital assets.
You can find out more about digital assets and what happens to them after death in our digital assets help guide.
How Roche Legal can help
We are reassuring experts who can help you with a wide range of legal matters. Please get in touch if you need legal support with:
- Trusts and Estate Planning
- Probate and Estate Administration
- Contested Probate and Will Disputes
- Powers of Attorney
- Court of Protection matters
- Presumption of Death Applications
- Missing Persons Guardianship Applications
Need further help?
If you would like to discuss how you can manage your digital assets for the future, please contact us.