Dealing with “social media estates”

It has become increasingly popular to hold both financial and personal assets online, whether that includes social media, bank accounts, medical records or cryptocurrencies. But the question arises: what happens to these digital assets when their owner dies? How can they be recovered and transferred to rightful heirs?

You may be accustomed to dealing with contentious trust and probate, but these digital assets and personal identities have added another element to the inheritance process. If no Will or instructions are left behind, tracking down the deceaseds’ online assets, closing accounts, claiming any financial benefit or downloading items of personal significance like photographs can be extremely challenging for the executor or the next-of-kin. It gets even more complicated if your client was making large sums of money from the internet, as a blogger or a social media star for example.

According to GBG, identity data intelligence specialists, here are three things to consider:

Your clients’ login details
Many websites prohibit people from passing their login details to others, such as Apple, who state passwords should never be given to anyone else. Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, it may be a criminal offence if executors were to login to online accounts after someone dies. Without receiving permission from the website, if the executor wants to post something on the behalf of the deceased, download a photo or transfer money, the executor may be committing fraud.

Making money online
If your client is a social media star, the chances are they have incorporated themselves into a business, and it is the company that owns the account, so they are protected.

If what they are earning is just a good wage, they might not think to do that. Perhaps [if your client] is a fitness guru with a relatively successful line of yoga videos hosted by YouTube. Their revenue is derived from the advertising alongside those videos. So while the videos themselves are an asset and would go to the next-of-kin, their followers would be lost when YouTube closes the account after their death. Even if the beneficiaries opened a new YouTube account and posted the videos again, they would be unlikely to recapture that revenue stream.

“Legal precedents will be established as the cases come through. But what’s really important is that people are fully aware of the terms and conditions of every site that they use.” says Neil Fraser, a partner at Fraser and Fraser.

The Digital Legacy Association’s Digital Death Survey 2017 reported that approximately 83% had not made plans for their social media accounts following their deaths.
In the past, it was easier for executors to track down assets as there was physical evidence such as paper bank statements and share certificates. But now in the digital world, it becomes challenging to find digital assets and even more challenging to figure out how to distribute the “social media estate.”

If your client is earning a decent online income and they have a reasonable assumption of that continuing after death, then protect it for your client by investigating how to pass it on.

Clients username list
Writing down passwords for online accounts is a significant security risk; however, GBG advised that keeping an up-to-date list of usernames for online accounts could be helpful. Following a death, it can be difficult to trace financial accounts if executors or beneficiaries do not know about them. There is a possibility that it may become easier following the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), but if clients kept lists of online accounts this could help in locating valuables and assets, and simultaneously prevent cybercrime like identity theft and fraud.

Some questions to ask your clients (This will all depend on the type of account and site):
What do they want to do with their accounts?
Do they want everything deleted or to live on forever?
Do they want to appoint ‘social media executor’?

What happens to social media accounts after the user dies?
Twitter: they will work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate, or a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.
Instagram: they need to receive a valid request to memorialise the account. To remove the account, they need the deceased’s persons birth and death certificates, proof of authority that you are the lawful representative of the deceased person, or his/her estate
Google: they need to receive a valid request. And if you want access to their funds such as Wallet and AdSense, they require letters of administration, death certificate of the deceased and ID of the person making the request.
Facebook: they need one document for proof such as power of attorney, birth certificate, valid Will or letters of administration



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