The Death Taboo - What's Your Digital Legacy?

28/09/2016 17:15
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It is difficult to count how many websites I have signed up to in the last few years, many of which now seem to hold countless details of mine, from addresses to credit card details, photos and music.

I don't have an issue with this, in fact, I'm all for it; it makes my day to day life easier. My photos are saved and backed up automatically and I'm able to buy things online or in a shop without even taking my wallet out of my pocket.

The security of my information and data is obviously important. Happily, my experience so far is that privacy laws are just about keeping up and, save for countless unwanted spam emails, my important data remains safe (I hope).

The laws surrounding my "digital legacy" in the event of my death are, however, far less developed.

I say less developed and that is perhaps unfair. What is less developed are the policies those website companies adopt on death and the publicity surrounding the subject of how my data will be handled when the day comes.

When I meet with clients to discuss their wills, more often than not their principal objective is to ensure their tangible assets are passed on to their loved ones. To date, I have never been asked a question about a person's digital legacy, for example their assets associated with social media or online storage sites.

That being said, this shouldn't be too surprising. The Internet is no longer in its infancy, but it and all of the services collecting or holding my data are less than a generation old. As such, the issues arising on death are only just beginning to surface. For example, how can my family access my photos saved in the cloud? Who owns my music and can it be passed on to my family? What should happen to my Facebook and Twitter profile?

As time passes, and issues are highlighted in the media, public awareness will improve, as will the clarity over company policy on the data being held.

A few websites now include something about what would occur on death in the small print. For example, last year Facebook confirmed that a user can now specify what should happen to their account if they die: it can either be "memorialised" or deleted. In the absence of any directions, the page will automatically be memorialised and Facebook state that they will consider requests to delete and/or release the content of the profile to family members at their discretion.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that whilst the subject of death is taboo (and certainly does not make for glamorous marketing material) few of us make time consider what might happen when we die.

This isn't a new phenomenon. It is thought that only a half of those in the UK over 50 have a will (we should all have one!), so if we are not thinking about a will, it's very unlikely that any thought will be given to our online profiles.

So what should we be doing with our digital legacy? Sadly, that is a difficult question at present whilst the policies of each website and company remain so different.

Many of the websites I have signed up to simply store my details to make my next purchase easier (and no doubt help them with their marketing). My view is that these websites do not need to be worried about, bank cards will be cancelled reducing the risk of fraud and any spam mail can be returned to the sender.

The websites and online services of more importance are those that are holding my personal and private data, i.e. the data that might have monetary or sentimental value to my family (or data that may cause harm if it were to be passed into the wrong hands).

As a very basic start, it would be sensible to maintain a list of those websites and applications that store important data about you: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Apple, email accounts, etc.

This list should then be passed to the solicitor holding your will or to a trusted family member. That way, even without passwords, in the event of your death, the time, stress and cost of having to identify those sites can be avoided.

The most organised might even include passwords but, if we follow the advice given to us by the experts, we should be changing our passwords regularly, so the opportunity for these lists to quickly become out of date is huge.

Of course, this is a very basic and a laughably "non-digital" approach! As I noted above, certain providers are developing their policies in this area and an eye should be kept on this. My hope, however, is that the more tech savvy among us will be looking for better options which will fuel the development of this area.

There is no doubt that things will change in the coming months and years and I am sure we will soon see more on the subject.

Tim Snaith is a partner in the private client team at Winckworth Sherwood. He advises high-net worth families and entrepreneurs on their wills, estate planning and probate matters.