When people die, they leave their physical assets and money to beneficiaries who could be family members, friends or acquaintances or favourite charities. This is arranged beforehand by making a will or – if there is no will – by a decision made by the court. Nowadays, most of us also leave behind various online assets, including our online profiles, email accounts, posts and other content in social media and content sharing accounts, and files stored in the cloud. There is much confusion and an increasing amount of debate around what you should do to protect your digital assets for the benefit of those who survive and succeed you, or alternatively have accounts deleted.
Make a will, ensure you include your wishes regarding your online accounts and your login details, and lodge it safely.
Remember that most social media, entertainment and other sites have procedures to cover the death of users.
Photos, video, comments, music libraries and other valued memories being inaccessible to family and friends, so possibly being lost forever
Successors being unable to close accounts held in the deceased person’s name, including transactional accounts
Successors being unable to maintain links with online contacts
The most important priority is to ensure that online accounts which involve payment information can be immediately closed down upon death to prevent fraud or identity theft, or continued legitimate payments being taken. These include banking, shopping/auction sites, utilities, telecoms, entertainment, gaming, gambling and dating sites. The respective companies or sites will be able to advise on what course of action to take.
Protecting your assets
There are a number of ways to help ensure that digital assets will not get lost after death. There are too many websites and online services to mention on this page, so we have covered some of the most widely used. Our overriding advice is to include your wishes regarding all or individual accounts – including login and other access details – in your will and lodging it securely with your solicitor.
Some social networking sites have policies related to what happens to users’ accounts when they die. With others, accounts remain dormant until deleted due to lack of activity … or family or friends take action.
Facebook has a form for relatives or friends to either request the removal of accounts after death, or for the profile’s ‘memorialisation’, which means that the deceased person will no longer show up in the ‘suggestions’ or ‘people you may know’ box, but you will still be visible to everyone they have opened their profile to. Depending on the privacy settings, friends and family can share memories of that person.T
Twitter can close accounts and provide archives of public tweets for deceased users. The request to do so has to come from a verified immediate family member or person authorised to act on behalf of the estate. The procedure is detailed on Twitter’s support site here.
Google (including YouTube and Google Play)
Google’s 'Inactive Account Manager' feature allows users to set up a process to transfer ownership and control of inactive accounts to a delegated user. Your Google assets could include Google+ Google Docs, Gmail, Picasa photos and YouTube videos, amongst others. Once a user is known to have passed away, Google can work with immediate family members and representatives to close online accounts. Under certain circumstances, it may provide content from a deceased user’s account.
MySpace will preserve or remove deceased users’ profiles at the request of the next of kin or executor or the estate. The site also allows a memorial to be set up in honour of deceased users.
Gmail and Hotmail allow the email accounts of people who have died to be accessed, provided certain requirements are met. Yahoo! Mail will not provide such access.
Dropbox does not have a specific policy for accounts of deceased people. Under its general terms, inactive Dropbox accounts are deleted after 90 days since the last login.
Wikipedia user pages are normally fully edit-protected after the user has died, to prevent unauthorised editing or vandalism including trolling. Wikipedia has a central memorial page to remember users who have made a large number of contributions or edits.
Apple’s iTunes Store terms and conditions do not mention what happens in the event of a death, but it does state: “You may not rent, lease, lend, sell, transfer distribute, or sublicense the Licensed Application and, if you sell your Mac Computer or iOS Device to a third party, you must remove the Licensed Application from the Mac Computer or iOS Device before doing so.” This means that content – including music, video, podcasts, apps and content stored in iCloud – remains locked to the account and cannot be passed on to another person, even after death. However, Apple is known to handle genuine requests for accounts of a deceased person to be taken over by a relative sympathetically and the first action should be to email iTunesStoreSupport@apple.com to discuss the situation.
In the event of an Apple device being passed on when someone dies, the name, email and password and payment details can be changed if a relative or other authorised person has access to the account. This is a good example of the importance of leaving online login details in a will. The device’s passcode or PIN should also be notified, as login details will be ineffective if the device cannot be accessed in the first place.
Apple also has a service that enables an account to be completely closed down.