Managing your online life after you die

Mobile phone (Photo: CAFNR)

Social media platforms are an increasingly central part of our lives – used to check the news, shop, relax and communicate.

Many people put a lot of time into building online profiles, choosing the right picture, matching it with the right caption, and tracking the likes and comments it receives.

But most of us give very little attention to what will happen to these digital assets when we die – both the private information stored in emails and websites, to social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Researchers at Charles Sturt University have found that less than 30% of Australians know what will happen to these accounts after death – and I found a similar lack of knowledge from people on the streets of Melbourne:

So what do you need to know? Here are some tips from Andrew Simpson, head of Wills and Estate Planning at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. Remember – this isn’t formal advice, so have a chat to your solicitor if you want to leave specific instructions about your online accounts.

In relation to wills, do you ever get requests from clients about their social media accounts?
Yes, but only occasionally. The general query is what happens to their digital accounts (typically Facebook and Twitter) when they die. The other issue is that of their mobile phone that will inevitably store personal information and photographs.

What do you or legal firms advise people to do with their accounts before they pass on?
They should tell someone they trust their access/pin codes to their phone or any other device that stores personal information that will need to be dealt with after death. Secondly, that they need to make a decision about what they want to happen to their digital accounts after death and record these wishes in writing so that they can be actioned after death. For example, do they want the account to be closed down, or do they want to authorise someone to manage the account for them after death so that people can post memorial messages.

Do family members of the deceased ever request access to accounts for information or inheritance?
The most common requests relate to material contained on mobile phones such as photographs and text messages, and data and files stored on computers. Difficulties are encountered when no-one knows the passwords or pin numbers.

Why do you think 71% of people do not know what happens to their digital content after they die?
People don’t regard digital content as an “asset” that needs to be dealt with after death. When people prepare their Will, they tend to be focused on the dealing with items that have a monetary value (such as bank accounts, real estate and motor vehicles). This is potentially problematic because many people will have a digital footprint that will not automatically die with them.

What would you recommend people to do now in preparation for their digital death?
Turn their mind to the treatment of their digital footprint during their lifetime and make some decisions about how these accounts are to be managed after death (and write these wishes down and store them with their personal documents). Secondly, do a Will appointing an executor and give the executor the specific power to deal with digital assets. They should make sure that they leave a record of all access codes to make the executor’s job easier.

Story by Shantelle-Ann Marquis.