Digital life after death? 

April 4, 2017

Billions of people worldwide use the internet; a remarkable 70 per cent of them do so every day. For those aged over 40, many will remember a time when they didn’t know anyone who used it – ‘it’ll never take off’, many confidently predicted, however, as we now know, the only constant in technology is change.

The advent of smart technologies, phones and tablets and the growth of online businesses have all contributed to phenomenal changes in how people live their lives and by implication the nature of their estate at their death.

The world’s addiction to social media presents an executor with new and difficult problems as, more often than not, they must deal with multiple social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the deceased.

This may not present an immediate financial risk, but there is huge sentimental value to the family. As traditional photo albums and diaries are replaced by digital photo sharing and blogs, this digital footprint will become a significant part of a record of a life.

All digital activities are password protected, causing access and preservation issues, but conversely this raises both privacy and ownership issues. Inactivity is not an option as some social media accounts are automatically deactivated if left dormant, whereas others will continue indefinitely after death. This can open the door to identity fraud as a deceased person’s social media accounts could be a relatively easy target for hackers. Social media is very immediate, with people often sharing information without caution. An executor still has a clear duty to prevent loss.

Other digital assets, such as websites and domain names, can have a tangible value, so the intellectual property needs protecting and this is a serious issue for the wills draftsman. Even a gaming avatar can acquire value through online successes, while those producing original material for sites such as YouTube can generate significant advertising revenues.

Conversely, where people see a valuable asset there may be none, for example thousands of pounds can be spent on digital downloads such as music or films, but commonly purchasers have only acquired a licence which is revoked by death and therefore there is no legacy. Even while pondering this problem, the growth of subscription access services may render the ownership of a download irrelevant.

How this is managed is a new opportunity for the profession, but also to third parties, to add value for clients and digital planning will become increasingly necessary. The provision of legal services has never been more competitive and any failure in the profession to act will create a vacuum to be filled by the commercially astute.

In this technological age the acquisition, management and use of data is the key to the future marketing and growth of the profession. Lifetime management of social media accounts can assist any executor as some facilities exist to add the relevant permissions and authorities to operate post death.

To preserve their digital legacy after death anyone planning for the future must always remember to mention any digital assets as well as more tangible assets when speaking with their chosen legal professional.

Gordon Brown Law Firm 
0191 388 1778

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