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Digital continuity - protecting your online assets without hiding the key

Posted: 27/09/2019

As we move more aspects of our lives and life administration online, the question of how to deal with this after death becomes increasingly complex. Many people will run email accounts, social media profiles, payment accounts, at the very least, with some holding cryptocurrencies or other, potentially more valuable digital assets.

In common with most areas of lifetime planning, it is easy to concentrate on the financially valuable assets and leave those of sentimental value to be dealt with 'when the time comes'.  When this involves going through the family photo albums and sorting through old papers, it can be a simple matter of putting the key in the door of the house and going from room to room.

Extending that analogy to the digital world, the key to the door is often the password to a laptop, computer, tablet or mobile phone. And, unlike the front door, it’s rare that the neighbours have a spare key. Concern and legislation around identity theft means that we’re positively discouraged at every step from sharing our passwords.

So what can we do to preserve access through the front door? Clearly that is going to involve sharing login and password details somehow. A list with relevant information can be stored securely as a hard copy and kept up to date. Executors, a spouse or close friend can be advised that the list exists but it should not be passed to them. Such sharing during their lifetime could breach the terms and conditions of individual internet service provider agreements. Alternatively, an online service such as a digital password keeper could be used (although there are concerns around the staying power of digital services for such important information and they would no doubt be a prime target for hackers). On death, proper authority will be needed for executors to access accounts. Terms and conditions should be checked before doing so to comply with statutory requirements.

Once the key to the front door is taken care of, we then need to know where to look online for the digital accounts, before we can even contemplate accessing them. At this point, it becomes clear what a mammoth task loved ones can face. Imagine having the key to the front door of a vast storage facility and not knowing which rooms your relative had stored things in. You’re looking for their photographs, their personal information, financial information and much more besides, without knowing what it is, or where to look for it. And then you need the key to every one of those different storage rooms.

Now, imagine that there were a list of which rooms or accounts things were stored in. It’s a start; and will massively reduce the task ahead. With a list, at least we know where to look and which passwords are needed. After that, it does become a matter of access again. Some digital accounts such as Facebook allow the appointment of a legacy contact, who can manage the accounts and decide what to do with it after death. Sentimental assets, such as photographs and online digital diary-esque posts can then be sorted by the appointed person (in the same way that physical photographs or diaries would be) and there is often no rush for this.

Many financial assets, such as online payment accounts like PayPal, gambling accounts, online-only banking facilities and cryptocurrencies will also allow for a legacy contact to be appointed and we would all be well-advised to set this up. In particular, financial assets will need to be dealt with reasonably urgently, especially where a grant of probate is required.

Otherwise, if a legacy contact is not appointed (or cannot be), then yet again, we come back to the old-fashioned position of writing down passwords and storing them somewhere secure. Wherever this information is (securely) stored, it will need to be updated regularly as passwords are changed and new accounts created.

Many of us are unwitting digital hoarders. Online accounts are easily created, used and often forgotten about when their useful life comes to an end. They exist in the ether, without being cleared away or properly closed down. It is so easy to do, yet these ephemeral online footprints can leave loved ones with a multitude of false trails to follow when finding their way through the digital lives we leave behind. A bit of prior organisation can go a long way.

If you do nothing else after reading this, make a list of your digital accounts, highlighting those which are financial and those which are sentimental. You may also have a third category of ‘services’ such as online media subscriptions. What you do to help your executors or loved ones after that is up to you, but we are always happy to store a sealed envelope with your will if it would assist.

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP