This Is Step One To Protect Your Digital Legacy After Death

By Peter Billingham Digital Death Advisor

I had an inheritance from my father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
The spending of it’s never done.
— Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's Time To Read The Will

The room is full of hopeful relatives waiting for the reading of wealthy Uncle Fred's will. Who will get the house? Who will get the art collection? In hushed tones, the solicitor starts to read the words, "This is the last will and testament of..."  

That scene has been played out in so many movies when the only beneficiaries are the deceased's cat! And that is true, that happens. A cat in Rome was left $13m!

Could This Be A Scene From The Future?

In these days of digital death and protecting our digital assets after death, the scene could look a lot different.

To my partner and family, I leave my Dropbox account with 1000's of photos, and 100's of hours of video. I also have an account at these online memory vaults where I have left individual video messages to you all. I have left the passwords to my social media accounts. I want these closed and removed from the internet after my death.

To my lifelong best friend Mick; I leave my online betting account. There is quite a few pounds still in there. You can use it as long as you bet on Manchester United to beat your favourite team, Chelsea. (I thought that would make you smile Mick!)

I leave my iPhone to my daughter with my sizeable collection of music from iTunes on there. I'm not sure it belongs to me. (Though I paid for it, it was only a license apparently) At least you will have some decent music to listen to now!

And so on ...

Dying Without A Will Leaves Problems Rather Than Assets

According to Citizens Advice, two-thirds of people in the UK who die have no will. If someone dies without a will, rules, and laws, dictate the allocating of their money, property or possessions.

Potentially it could not be the way the deceased would have wished. Johnathan Smithers from the Law Society said,

"Thousands of people die every year without making a will or without one that has been properly drafted. If you die without a will, your final wishes may well go unheeded, and your loved ones may have to cope with additional financial stress at a time of bereavement."

"I Don't Have Anything To Leave!"

When asked why most don't have a will the usual answer is, "I don't have anything to leave." That may be true, but it is not always about what assets you leave. It is more often about the problems you don't leave behind for the family. Problems to try to solve that can be costly financially, emotionally and now digitally. Your digital assets after death need careful planning and action. 

Create A Digital Preferences Register

We recommend that you take professional legal advice according to the country where you live to ensure that all your wishes both physical and digital are carried out correctly after your death. Many solicitors now offer this digital estate planning service. Increasingly, law firms are writing online about the importance of digital legacy planning. Tim Snaith a Partner at Winckworth Sherwood, London recently said in a Huffington Post article,

"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. ... 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.

Here is a simple template for a DIGITAL PREFERENCES REGISTER that you could use to maintain that list. This register is not a legal document. It is just a Digital Preferences Register. It is just a record of your preferences for someone to know after your death. 

To complete the register, first, list all your online accounts. You may be surprised how many sites you use and how many online firms have your personal details. Primarily, as Tim Snaith says, this would be social media accounts, online banking, investments, email and blogging or website details. Add as many lines and items as you need.

What Do I Do About Passwords?

The question of leaving passwords could be met by using a service like LastPass. LastPass remembers all your passwords, so you don't need to. You can set it to change passwords on a regular basis. With the Emergency Access feature, you can give trusted family and friends access to your LastPass account in the event of your death. Your designated Emergency Access contact(s) can request access to your account. LastPass is an excellent tool when it comes to digital legacy planning.

Next, decide what you want to happen to that online account after your death. Do you want that account closed? Do you want it deleted? Do you want your Facebook account memorialised or deleted? Are there financial reserves in any accounts? Who will be the beneficiary of that money? Who will be your digital executor? This executor maybe different than the executor of your will.

What Next?

This document then needs to be held with your will. If you haven't got a will, leave it where someone could be certain to find it say with Life Assurance policies or retirement provisions. This document is just a statement of your preferences. Please seek appropriate legal advice to ensure that your wishes, both physically and digitally are fulfilled after your death. In time, managing your digital estate after death may become more structured and standardised. For now, at least your descendants will know what your digital preferences would be should you die. 

Oh, if you haven't got a will - go and make one.

Interested in reading more articles on Digital Legacy Planning check these out:

Death and your Digital Footprint 
How do you safeguard your digital assets when you die?
Death in the digital age: Looking after your e-estate
Don’t Forget Your Digital Assets when Making a Will
4 Ways To Protect Your Accounts From Beyond The Grave