Many of us would have already come across or received notifications from “ghost” accounts (where someone has died but their online account is still open) on one social media platform or another. It can be a little disconcerting and sometime distressing to receive a message reminding you of the birthday for someone who is no longer with us.

On the other side of the coin, for many people being able to view photos, events and memories from a relatives or friends account can be a great source of comfort. Most social media and online streaming companies have their own policies for dealing with the accounts where the owner has died. The polices can vary considerably so it is always worth checking the small print when you sign up, particularly if you are uploading anything personally valuable or sensitive.

For some relatives the lack of access to a loved ones account can be traumatising. They may feel strongly about the content, want to let other followers know the person has died, or want to turn off the notifications! Sometimes, there may be substantial credit still locked into the account if, for example, it was an online betting service.

This week a landmark legal case was heard by the highest court in Germany. They ruled that a grieving mother must have access to her late daughter’s Facebook profile and private messages. (See Facebook ruling: German court grants parents rights to dead daughter’s account)

The court in Karlsruhe ruled that parents can inherit the contract between their child and a social media platform in the same way they would be able to inherit physical documents such as diaries and private letters. Put simply:

“From an inheritance law view, there is no reason to treat digital content differently”.

If this ruling comes to be accepted on a wider international basis it will have far reaching implications in terms of the way inheritance and probate matters are addressed, as well as how the accounts of the deceased are maintained online.

At rhw we have given presentations on this subject area over the last couple of years and are watching developments very closely. We keep up to date with all aspects of legal and social approaches to inheritance matters as the interface here between personal interests and the digital world is probably one of the most rapidly changing in any area of the law. We keep up to date so we can keep our clients up to date.

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