Logging off: handling a loved one's online legacy


As we live increasingly online, the need to cover ‘digital assets’ and internet-based accounts in our wills is becoming an issue, writes JOHN CRADDEN

DEALING WITH the aftermath of someone’s death is always a sensitive issue, but what do you do if the person continues to remain “active” online long after they have logged off for good?

Not so long ago, when a loved one died it was simply a case of notifying relevant businesses and authorities, such as banks, utility firms, the Revenue Commissioners and so on, while the person’s will dealt with everything else.

Now, as people increasingly live their lives online, failing to consider what should be done with your “digital assets”, such as websites, blogs, online accounts, forum posts and social media accounts, may cause more than a few problems for those left behind.

Several Facebook users, for instance, had complained that they were being encouraged, through popular features such as birthday alerts, to get in touch with people who had died.

In response, Facebook recently introduced a feature that allows users’ profiles to be converted into static “commemorative” pages at the request of their loved ones, with any sensitive information removed.

“If they have been particularly active online, either as an online professional or as an avid user, there’ll be photos, blog posts, forum posts, Twitter activity and e-mail all to be thought about,” says Boards.ie communications manager Darragh Doyle.

“What should happen? Should that just be erased or left there? I guess it’s up to the family.”

Hundreds of users of Boards.ie have been paying tribute in recent weeks to Gearóid Walsh, the 23-year-old Irish backpacker who died in Sydney last month following an assault. Walsh was a popular and frequent contributor to the online forum.

The Boards.ie policy is to “leave things alone” unless it is requested to do otherwise by the family of the deceased.

Users can post tributes, make and share funeral arrangements and share stories without any official interference, says Doyle.

The question of dealing with digital assets is being brought more frequently to the attention of clients who are drawing up wills, but only when it is appropriate, says Carol Hogan, an associate in the Trust and Estates Group at William Fry solicitors.

“Queries in this regard have arisen more often in the last year or so, which would be in keeping with the growing popularity of online activities,” she says.

It is often assumed that digital assets have few financial implications that need to be considered when writing a will, but that too is changing as more of us trade online or sign up to online-only banking services such as RaboDirect.

If you frequently sell items on eBay, for instance, you may have a PayPal account, which allows you to transfer and hold money online.

“The situation for PayPal is far closer to that for money held in a bank or building society account than digital assets in a Facebook account,” says Rob Skinner, PayPal UK’s head of public relations.

If a next of kin wishes to access a PayPal account, the firm requires a faxed copy of the death certificate and proof that the person looking for access is authorised to request it under the terms of the deceased’s will.

If there is no will, it becomes more complicated.

“The surviving spouse or other close relative will normally need to apply to court for the right to act as an administrator of the deceased person’s estate,” says Skinner.

He adds that most PayPal accounts contain only modest sums.

For other firms, such as web-hosting provider Blacknight, producing a valid copy of a death certificate is sufficient.

“If they can produce a death certificate, then you can safely assume they’ve got authorisation to access the account details,” says Blacknight chief executive Michele Neylon.

Irish blogger Will Knott did some research recently into the policies of online firms concerning the deaths of users. Yahoo, for instance, will simply terminate any accounts when it is sent a copy of the user’s death certificate.

Other firms say they may be prepared to transfer the contents of the accounts to confirmed next of kin, but acknowledge that this remains a tricky area.

However, Doyle questions whether the issue is worth worrying about.

“Personally I don’t feel I’ve contributed anything amazing online, so I wouldn’t be too upset if it was all erased tomorrow,” he says.

“For the artists, the writers, the composers and the designers though, it’s possibly different.”

For firms that want to harvest user data for market research in years to come, dormant online accounts may eventually turn into a ticking time bomb.

“Out-of-date information assembled from users who have died would be out of date and worse than useless,” says Niall Kitson, editor of digital consumer magazine PC Live!.

“This is a challenge advertisers will need to address to maintain an accurate picture of whom to target.”