Business Clinic: How do I arrange digital accounts on death?

Whether it’s a legal, tax, insurance, management or land issue, Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts can help.

Here, Emily Prout, a wills, tax and trusts specialist and partner with law firm Thrings, sets out suggestions for how an individual might organise things for their digital accounts on death.

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Q. Now that so much personal and business information is online, what should I put in place to protect things or provide for practicalities regarding this after my death?

As well as the obvious business dealings such as banking and transactions with suppliers and buyers, there are accounts with bodies including the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS), pensions, savings and investment platforms and information stored in the cloud.

I also have social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and encrypted messaging on WhatsApp. My email accounts include personal information and exchanges, as well as shopping accounts.

Also, what provision should be made by people who use dating apps and some other subscription services, so that no distress is caused for those left behind?   

A. Most people understand what happens to their physical property after death, but when it comes to digital assets, it’s not so clear.

We tend to feel that our digital profiles and accounts are “ours” and we have the right to do with them as we wish. However, digital assets in death have not been defined in UK legislation or dealt with by any specific legal regime.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the person who owns a file or account can grant authority for someone, such as their executor, to access that file on their death, but in fact the authority lies with the organisation which provides the account – each with its own post-death rules, terms and conditions.

Currently there is no “one-stop” service that can neatly tie up digital loose ends after death, so our loved ones will be in the position of having to contact each provider separately.

Some are easier to deal with than others. Banks and insurers are used to dealing with bereaved relatives, but it can be harder to contact newer digital platforms.

Facebook operates a legacy contact facility, where you can nominate someone to have a discussion with Facebook on your death, take copies of what is on there and delete the account or “memorialise” your profile, which makes people aware that you have died, but your account is still active.

By contrast, an Apple ID dies with you, and it will not be passed on to your beneficiaries.

Apple offers to wipe the account, but if you do not wish to do that, or require digital content from the account, then you will need to make an application to court for access.

This is a formal legal application, supported by evidence and payment of a court fee.

Accounts with official bodies

Usually, accounts with bodies such as the BCMS and RPA will form part of an individual’s estate if they are a sole trader.

They may be partnership assets if the deceased person was in partnership, in which case they can be accessed by the remaining partners.

In either scenario it would be a good idea for someone else to be given login information – perhaps fellow partners, a farm secretary, next of kin, or executors.

Most dating apps require contact via email, although because many dating apps rely on a user to be active to “match” with others, an inactive profile may be less of a concern if it is left untouched.

Email providers vary – for example Microsoft has a “custodian of records” that deals with requests to a dedicated email address, while Google requires applicants to fill in a web form to process requests relating to inactive Gmail accounts.

Plan ahead

As with all aspects of wills and succession, the more you can do now to plan ahead, the easier it will be for those you leave behind.

It is a good idea while you are alive to periodically download backups of treasured photos, business documents and so on, and keep them somewhere a trusted friend or relative can find them.

You could also create a sealed or secure document, such as a password-protected Word document or a locked USB drive, containing details of accounts, usernames and passwords.

The details required to unlock the information can be contained in a will, and only given to a named person after your death.

A wills and probate specialist will be able to help you decide how best to do this in a way that meets your needs.

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