Making plans for what happens to our online presence after we pass away could save our loved ones unnecessary pain and distress, say probate experts.
Research suggests three out of four people have not thought about how their family will access and manage their social media, email and online financial accounts when they die.
Lynda Monks, a senior Wills and Probate solicitor at Macks Solicitors in Middlesbrough with 30 years’ experience, warns this can store up problems for the future.
“When a loved one passes away it leaves a huge hole in our lives and so many emotional challenges to overcome,” she said. “There are also the practical issues that must be dealt with, such as sorting out financial affairs.
“In the past there would have been paper documentation to help track down all the accounts and any assets such as stocks and shares, but increasingly this is no longer the case.
“In the modern digital world we often hold many accounts with different PIN numbers, passwords and digital access codes. We rarely think to give the information about what they are and how they can be accessed to anyone else.
“This can lead to enormous difficulties for those who are left behind and can really add to the distress they are feeling at an already difficult time.”
A recent survey by The Co-operative Funeralcare revealed that 78 per cent of those who have looked after a loved one’s online accounts after death experienced difficulties, while a fifth were unable to manage the process at all.
Lynda added: “Talking about what should happen if you die before your partner or other relatives isn’t an easy thing to do, but it is very important to let someone know what accounts you hold, how to access them and what you would like to happen to them.
“As a recent survey highlighted the fact that the UK population now owns £2.3bn of Internet assets, it’s essential to leave instructions regarding your digital assets – your family could be very grateful that you did.
“Making a Will is one very practical way you can make plans for the future and make it known what you would like to happen to your assets. Another practical step is to consider your ‘digital legacy’. Many people mistakenly believe it helps if they include this information in their will.
“However, your Will becomes a public document when it goes through the probate court, which could mean sensitive information being read and exploited by fraudsters.
“A better solution would be to leave a sealed letter containing details of your online accounts, as well as PINs and passwords, along with your Will at your solicitor’s office. In this way your confidential information is only available to your Executors.
“Many of us already let our families know what kind of funeral arrangements we would like, so why shouldn’t we also make plans for our digital future as well? In today’s technological world, we need to consider the rights of access to our online life and assets.”
As well as leaving details of financial accounts and how to access them, other questions to consider include whether you would want your next of kin to have access to your social media accounts and whether you’d like a status update or online post to let friends and followers know you’ve passed away.
Social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn will all need to be closed or turned into memorial pages after your death. Facebook recently changed its policy to enable users to appoint an online executor who can maintain their account posthumously.
You should also think about what you’d like to happen to your email accounts, any digital music, photographs, films or books you own or money held in online gambling accounts.