Your Digital Footprint Post Death

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 sometimes 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 relative’s or friend’s 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. These include setting up an inactive account contact, or memorialising the deceased’s account. The polices can vary considerably so it is always worth checking the terms and conditions when you sign up, particularly if you are uploading anything personally valuable or sensitive.

For some relatives the lack of access to a loved one’s account can be traumatizing. They may feel strongly about the content, want to let others 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.

Access to Accounts – A Legal Perspective

A few years ago there was a landmark legal case in Germany. They ruled that a grieving mother must have access to her late daughter’s Facebook profile and private messages.

The court in Germany 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”.

The ruling was accepted in Germany but we are still watching the impact on the wider international basis to see if it has 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.

Other Digital Accounts – What is Important or Has Value?

The importance of digital accounts in day-to-day life has grown exponentially in recent years. Music, visual media, bank accounts, digital currency, shopping sites, you name it, many of us will have one or more online accounts we are using on a daily basis.

When considering what happens when you are no longer here, you should consider what the accounts you own are doing, who actually owns the content and the relevance to other family members. A useful way of thinking about managing and listing these accounts is along the lines of:

  • Inform
  • Direct
  • List and update when necessary
  • Worth?
  • Personal and Business

For example if you have a music or video streaming account or something like ‘iTunes’ are they just set up for you or are they a family account? How are they being paid for and does anyone else know security access passwords?

Some accounts are ‘mission critical’. If you have more than one bank account, ask yourself who knows where they are or how they can be accessed if required.

Are there likely to be any digital liabilities, which would need to be paid by the estate, for example online gambling debts? Alternatively, if credit cards are run online then they may need a monthly payment servicing after you have gone, so someone needs to know about their existence.

These days an increasing number of people have digital currency ‘wallets’ that may contain valuable amounts of digital currency. Your relatives may need specialist advice on this sort of area to understand exactly what they are dealing with and how to access any funds there may be in the wallet

Some sites, such as online shopping accounts or accounts with betting firms may have credit still in your account. Without knowledge of their existence any value is unlikely to be realised.

In Summary

The key message from this article is to have a conversation with your loved ones whilst you are still alive. At rhw we can offer a full service to help you with the legal background to manage your digital accounts and assets and we also have a useful form you can use to list all the information your relatives and executors will need to know about.

At rhw we have given presentations on this subject over the last couple of years and are watching developments very closely. We keep up to date with all aspects of inheritance matters as the interface 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.


rhw Solicitors in Guildford (logo)

Ensure that your loved ones benefit from your digital accounts and assets after you’re gone.

Contact rhw’s Wills, Trusts and Estates Team on wills@rhw.co.uk or call 01483 302000