Do you use PayPal, Amazon or Facebook? Do you have a LinkedIn account or manage your banking online? Do you share family photos using Dropbox or Instagram, or your pearls of wisdom via Twitter?

The average UK citizen has 26 online accounts and ten different passwords. Research by YouGov found that 52% of us have not made provision for our digital accounts to be accessed in the event that we die or are incapacitated, and this can lead to problems when life takes an unexpected turn.

Here, at Spratt Endicott, we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries about managing digital assets, and it is an area of law which is developing apace.

In the UK there is no legislation defining digital assets or governing how they should be accessed and dealt with in these circumstances, which means there is some uncertainty in this area. It is however accepted that digital assets comprise information about you in a digital form (whether related to your personal or business activities) and include social media accounts, online banking and other shopping accounts such as PayPal, betting accounts and store directories, smartphone and app data, domain names and other intellectual property, online music accounts and ebooks, and online currencies such as bitcoins.

When somebody dies their personal representatives are responsible for administering their estate, but they may not know what digital assets there are, or how to access them, which can lead to accounts lying dormant and funds not being claimed. Digital assets which are not administered on death (such as funds in a betting account or virtual currency balances) will eventually form part of the unclaimed assets register. Given that our combined digital assets are worth in the region of £25 billion, if this happens then the deceased’s beneficiaries could be out of pocket. If someone is incapacitated and a friend or relative does manage to access their account without proper authority, they may be in breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Although an online footprint can have financial value, often it is the loss of sentimental items such as photos and emails which can cause a family anguish. It is less common these days for people to write diaries or maintain photo albums – instead they publish blogs or keep photos in the Cloud, and without clear directions and permission to access the accounts, decisions about what happens to the content in these circumstances are made by the service provider. This can mean that personal data which could have provided comfort in the wake of a trauma is unavailable to the family of the deceased or incapacitated.

  • So what can you do to help your family should the worst happen?
    If you run a business, you should ensure that you have a comprehensive digital recovery plan in place.
  • Check the terms and conditions of your accounts and nominate ‘legacy users’ where this option is provided, which will allow your nominated user to manage (and close if appropriate) your account.
  • Include a digital assets clause in your Will and consider appointing a ‘digital executor’ to have specific responsibility for your ‘virtual’ life if you have a significant online presence.
  • Keep an up to date list of your usernames and a separate one for your passwords and let your executors and/or attorneys know where to find them if it becomes necessary – or store the lists with your Will or Lasting Power of Attorney.
  • Attorneys appointed under a Lasting or Enduring Power of Attorney should consider matters such as iCloud storage subscriptions and ensure services are maintained until they have retrieved hard copies of things they want to keep.

Most importantly, consider your individual circumstances and take professional advice if you are unsure about what to do to ensure your wishes regarding your digital footprint are observed. This is a complex and fast evolving area where tailored advice is recommended.

Spratt Endicott is recognised by The Legal 500 UK (A clients’ guide to the capabilities of law firms) as the leading firm in North Oxfordshire in terms of its expertise and experience in the areas of powers of attorney, trusts, estate planning, wills and probate. We deliver these services at competitive prices and can often agree a fixed fee with you at the outset of the matter.