A leading Sunday newspaper recently published an article alerting readers about their online accounts and the need to inform those closest to them of their passwords in the event of a serious illness or death. However, it is important to not only consider online accounts but so-called “digital assets” as a whole.


Digital assets can range from sentimental items such as photographs to items with monetary value such as film, music and book collections purchased and stored electronically. Other assets may include online accounts that generate rewards or frequent flyer points, or investments in digital currencies such as Bitcoin.


A digital legacy also exists on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where potential problems for executors may arise. People who post on these sites do not actually own their online content and only have a licence to use the website’s services. What happens to a user’s profile after they die is governed by the website’s policies. Terms vary between service providers, but often the licence to use the platform terminates and the deceased’s online data is non-transferable.


When someone dies, their personal representatives will need access to their electronic records to administer their property. However, few people plan for this and accounts or other assets that are digital-based often leave no paper trail, making it difficult for an executor to locate the assets or even know they exist. Even if an executor has knowledge of the assets, if they do not know the relevant passwords they will be blocked from accessing them by cybersecurity measures.


Another problem lies in the fact that accessing someone else’s account without their specific authority breaches section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and may contravene the service provider’s Terms of Use. There is no specific UK legislation dealing with this, so executors will have to consult the policies of each provider separately in order to establish their rights to access and manage the assets.


Paula Steele, managing partner at John Lamb Financial Planning, said: “The potential pitfalls surrounding digital assets can be avoided by taking certain steps – an ideal occasion to discuss this with a client is when reviewing their will.”