What happens to your virtual life after you die?

With so many of us operating smart phones and tablets, and having social media profiles and online accounts, many more of us are leaving behind not only physical and monetary assets, but also a wealth of assets accumulated in cyberspace. Until recently most of this digital data would have been on a physical hard drive but much of it is now distributed through a “cloud”. These are your “digital assets”.

With data located in a “cloud” ownership is not always obvious. This will usually be dictated by the terms of use of the account or service through which the data is stored, to which the user (the deceased) had agreed when they signed up to the account or service. Do you always meticulously read the terms and conditions of use before ticking the box to say “I have read and accepted the terms and conditions”?

Many digital assets may have little or no monetary value, but accounts commonly contain photographs, personal communications and data of a highly confidential and sensitive nature. You may want to pass some of this to loved ones, or be concerned about the security of this data. If nothing is done, will your virtual self continue “living” in cyberspace? There can also be digital assets that are crucial to the running of a business (e.g. a business website) which must be passed on.

If your Will is silent about any digital assets, they are likely to fall into your “residuary estate” (i.e. any assets not specifically bequeathed in your Will). Your executor will have a legal responsibility to deal with these assets, but without your usernames and passwords, it could be impossible to gain control of your digital assets and distribute them. Think about what will happen to your digital assets after death. An obvious solution may be to maintain a list of usernames and passwords for the benefit of your executor. However, in light of the risks associated with identity theft and other cyber-crime one must be vigilant about the security of such data. Some websites do offer termination of your account after a prolonged period of inactivity, or for you to designate who should be able to access your account after your death.

Google will allow users to decide what happens to their data after they die or become inactive online and others will follow. You still need to think about it and go through the process online. Your Will should not contradict such preferences, and ensure that a list of the accounts you hold is stored securely with your Will.

For advice about your Will, visit our Wills, Probate and Trusts department page

Contact Annemarie Swainson and Joshua Eva