The business of dividing up someone's assets after they've died is never a pleasant one but is usually relatively straightforward.
There are, though, instances in which the terms of someone's will cannot be executed without some difficulties or objections, possibly re-opening old disputes among the family, friends and other beneficiaries left behind.
Some disagreements about who gets ownership of expensive property or knick-knacks which may only carry sentimental value - "chattels", as they're legally defined - can become so intense that they end up in court.
At least such action is framed by relevant legislation and a large volume of case law generated in the 85 years since the Administration of Estates Act was introduced in England and Wales. However, a relatively new phenomenon, not covered by any single law, is causing practitioners such as myself and my colleagues to adopt a new way of thinking.
When the Act was brought in, the idea of instant, wireless transmission of text and pictures would have been firmly placed in the realm of science fiction. After all, in 1925, the aeroplane and car were still fairly recent inventions and the television was not yet available in people's homes.
The Act was intended to handle the division of household effects, wine and even horses not the internet. The absence of any clear guidelines or precedence and the growing popularity of social media and e-commerce means that lawyers and digital entrepreneurs in the UK and elsewhere across the world are having to be pragmatic in handling cases involving the access to and division of people's online presence.
Recent figures released by Facebook claim that the social networking site now has more than 750 million members. A burgeoning number of other similar websites and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) hosting e-mail and trading accounts has meant many individuals amassing a wealth of personal and potentially valuable information electronically.
While much of that data, such as photographs and videos, might have little if any value, other material, such as that generated by eBay traders or music created and stored online, can have actual financial worth. Despite the continuing rise in the numbers of people involved in e-commerce (eBay says that it has 14 million subscribers in the UK alone), few people, it seems, have given thought about what will happen to their accounts when they're gone.
Part of the problem revolves around the fact that ISPs themselves have no uniform policy for dealing with the process of so-called "digital legacies". Current UK data protection laws really only apply to the living. Some ISPs, perhaps wary of the risk of identity theft, have refused to allow surviving relatives or those appointed to execute a will access to digital accounts without court orders, a sometimes costly affair. That process can be additionally complicated by the global spread of internet companies. What's acceptable to the courts in one jurisdiction, might not be in another.
As the internet has grown, so too have the commercial opportunities it presents and certain companies have identified the possibility of making money from dealing with issues presented by the 'digital afterlife', offering to securely handle passwords and deactivate or manage accounts when someone has died. Most, however, charge for the privilege.
There are simple steps which people can take to lessen the potential difficulties created by unpicking their life online. Printing off relative account details and passwords - removing the risk of ID theft by leaving an unlocked file on a computer - and placing them in the same envelope as your will offers some protection. They can then be revealed by executors along with
the other intentions set out in the will.
However, given the speed with which people open new online accounts and change passwords, it means that such a document would need to be constantly updated to ensure that executors and heirs alike did not have the trauma of a death compounded by an error message.