Death is not something we want to think about but sadly it comes to us all eventually. It is always difficult for those left behind to come to terms with their loss. One of the most distressing things is the need to sort out personal, financial and other legal affairs. As many people have found, dealing with banks, building societies, pension companies and other institutions can be a nightmare and only add to one’s heartache. In addition, there is the need to cancel driving and TV licences, sort out phone and public utility accounts, notify societies and other accounts, and so on. These days we are being advised to draw up wills and powers of attorney appropriately in the hope that these will smooth the way when dealing with all this.
However, with today’s technology and widespread internet usage, all of us who use a computer in any form have a digital footprint around the world (whether we realise this or not). This means that we “leave” information about ourselves and our activities all over the place. In its most common form this amounts to social media and email accounts with their attendant information that we have contributed over the years. If we have followed advice about security and passwords this information is quite likely to be protected against unlawful or malicious access. Upon our sad demise, unlike our physical bodies, this information does not “die”. This is increasingly being referred to as our digital legacy.
Recent research by a company called LifeSearch (and referred to last week on the Sky News website) examined the concept of a "data death" soon after physical death whereby social media and email accounts might be automatically deleted, instead of leaving it to their relatives to have to go through their data and close down their accounts. Most social media sites will close or suspend accounts if they learn of a user's death. But that can take time and paperwork, unless relatives can access the deceased's profile and passwords. Google and Facebook offer "legacy settings", where a user can select a contact to "curate" or preserve selected parts of an account after their death, in the same way an executor would organise assets according to instructions in a will.
But making this automatic is unlikely ever to happen given the complexity of internet law around the globe. Quite apart from the legal aspects, surviving relatives might find it exceptionally cruel to have their loved one's life history automatically, digitally expunged. Yet, sadly, research also shows that the vast majority of people have never discussed what they want to happen with their online data after they die.
LifeSearch spokesperson Emma Walker says:
"With our online presence increasingly a part of everyday life, it's important that we consider what will happen to our social media profiles, email accounts and the thousands of photos, videos and memories that go with them. Avoiding essential conversations about our digital life after death could leave our loved ones locked out, unable to take control, or at the mercy of hackers should the worst happen."
Very few people are putting such instructions in their wills or living Powers of Attorney. Furthermore, the legal profession in general has not fully caught up with this issue. Those that have probably lack sufficient technical knowledge to advise clients accordingly.
What steps have YOU taken to ensure that relatives can access your passwords and accounts and are in possession of the necessary authority to act on your behalf when you have gone? You can find some very helpful guidance on the LifeSearch web site at https://www.lifesearch.com/talkdigitaldeath. Why not take a look now?
(I have no connection to LifeSearch and, doubtless, a Google search will turn up many other useful sites).