What happens to my social media accounts when I die?
14 June 2017 by Andrea Godfrey
Digital assets are often not considered when making a Will and there are no current powers or rules as to what happens to them when someone dies. Digital assets are matters such as emails, Facebook, Ebay, Twitter etc. Some of them can contain very sentimental information that family members want access to – e.g. photos.
A recent legal decision in Germany brought the issue to light. Parents of a girl who died sued a social media platform because they were denied access to the deceased child’s account. The girl died in uncertain circumstances in 2012 when she was very tragically run over by a train. Her parents do not know if it was suicide and they wanted access to her Facebook so that they can see the post and messages that were on there before she died. The Court originally ruled in favour of the parents but Facebook has appealed this ruling. Their grounds are basically that the holder of the account may have wanted them kept private.
In England there is the case of Morgan Hehir who was murdered and his father wants Apple to unlock his son’s laptop. Apple refused and said he needed a Court Order to access his son’s artwork and music.
The reason there are issues on death is because you do not usually own your digital assets. We simply have a licence to use the provider’s services. You sign up and accept the terms and conditions of use and the licence agreement states what will happen to these digital assets on death. Generally licenses are not transferable so they end on death and will not form part of the estate.
If on someone’s death, another person accesses these i.e they know the passwords they could still be in breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
There are suggestions that the service providers should give an option when the accounts are opened as to whether the details can be given to a relative/executor on death.
At Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP, when we take instructions on your Will we give advice on practical ways to deal with the digital assets (dependent on whether they are sentimental or have monetary value e.g. Ebay account) However, it is clear that the law needs reforming to allow people to give family access to the content of these accounts if they so wish.
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