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Act now to retain your family's access to digital assets

Sponsored feature | Owen Byrne, director, BDB Pitmans

Owen Byrne, BDB Pitmans
Owen Byrne, BDB Pitmans

Hands up if you store your photos in the cloud, stream music, keep in touch with your family and friends on Facebook, send emails or express your views on Twitter or YouTube? That’s almost everyone then!

All of these things are ‘digital assets’ and more of us are acquiring more of them. But did you know that your family and executors may not have access to your digital accounts after your death?

STEP (the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners), in conjunction with Queen Mary, University of London have published a report highlighting the distress and frustration that difficulties accessing digital assets post-death cause to family members, the practical and legal problems put in their way by service providers such as Google, Apple and Microsoft and the lack of legal clarity on the ownership of digital assets, whether they can be left by will and rights of access by personal representatives.

And don’t think you can get round the problem by leaving a list of your passwords. This will almost certainly be a breach of contract and may be a criminal offence.

So what can you do? At the very least, you/your clients should draw up an inventory of digital assets - a list of service providers and accounts, including usernames, so you know where to start looking.

Some service providers allow personal representatives or family members to control the deletion of the deceased’s account, some allow account users to nominate ‘legacy contacts’ to have access to the accounts after their death.

Having drawn up the inventory, consider what rights (if any) the personal representatives have and think about appointing a legacy contact where permitted.

Only legislation will provide a real solution and the Law Commission issued a Call for Evidence in April 2021 which, hopefully, will lead to clearer rules.

In the meantime, it’s worth reading those terms and conditions to see what is possible. And back up those photos on a hard drive.

Owen Byrne is a partner at BDB Pitmans in Cambridge, advising on wills and estate planning. Contact owenbyrne@bdbpitmans.com or visit bdbpitmans.com.

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