Probate – What is our Digital Estate?

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What is our digital estate?

Our ever-increasing reliance on the internet has created a whole new element to ‘probate’. 

Our digital estate is the ‘online footprint’ that we leave when we die.  It is those accounts, profiles, and platforms where we viewed, held and gathered information, and where we interacted online with others during our lifetime.

For the purposes of this guide, we have focused on those things that are unlikely (for most of us at least) to have monetary value (ie for the purposes of probate and potentially of Inheritance Tax or IHT as it is known).  We do however make a nod to the fact that, for some, their digital estate may in fact hold some value making them ‘assets’ to the estate in the traditional sense.

Is a Digital Estate a legal thing?

Digital estates and digital wills are not something set down in law, they are just terms that have been coined to describe a new element of the probate process – ie dealing with our online footprint in the event of death.

What is included in a Digital Estate?

Given that the definition of a digital estate is something that is not set in law, one could argue that anything online is part of the digital estate.  The majority view seems to see the digital estate as being those things that are online, but without monetary value.

So, for example, although most of us now access our bank online, it is nonetheless a cash asset, and so part of our traditional estate.  In fact, the acid test is in part at least down to whether we would need to produce a grant of probate to the organisation in question to close a profile/account/etc.  Though again, this isn’t without contradiction as you will see below!

So the main things that will be part of our digital estate will be:-

  • Social media profiles – Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, etc
  • Productivity subscriptions – eg Microsoft o365, Google, and so on
  • Lifestyle apps – including some which may be subscription based

What happens to Social Media when we die?

There is little choice what happens with most social media accounts, it is simply a case of getting them closed down.  That needs either you to leave login credentials for your personal representatives allowing them access to close down the profiles, or relying on them to deal with each company after your passing on our behalf.  The latter is where the notion of a ‘digital will’ comes.

Some platforms allow accounts to be ‘memorialised’ to note the passing of the former user.  Some also allow the appointment of a ‘legacy contact’ during your lifetimes – ie someone who you have nominated to have authority to liaise with the provider after your passing.

Here is a very brief summary of the current procedures for the major social media platforms.  You can click on the platform name as a link through to further detailed articles on each provider:

  • Facebook – they do provide facility for memorialising the profile, as well as nominating a legacy contact during your lifetime
  • Twitter/X – there is no option to memorialise the profile, just close it.
  • Snapchat – there is no option to memorialise the profile, just close it.
  • TikTok – there is no option to memorialise the profile, just close it.
  • Instagram – they do provide facility for memorialising the profile.
  • Pinterest – there is no option to memorialise the profile, just close it.
  • YouTube – there is no opportunity to memorialise the profile. YouTube accounts may of course for some be income generating – and for others (high profile ‘YouTubers’) the provider of a wealthy legacy.  This creates a different aspect which we cover in our article on YouTube accounts

In essence, if you haven’t left login credentials to allow loved ones to access your social media (or nominated a legacy contact where you can), your representatives will simply need to contact each provider and evidence your passing, and their authority to instruct them on what to do.  This will likely be a copy of the death certificate, and sometimes even a copy of the grant of probate proving that they are the persons with legal authority to deal with the estate.

What happens to Productivity apps/platforms?

As to productivity apps, these are sometimes subscription based.  That being the case, once executors have frozen a bank account, the accounts will automatically close.

Some food for thought.  Again, each profile name is a link through to further information:

  • Microsoft/Office 365 – it may be useful for your executors to have access to your Office 365 (or Google) email accounts to establish things like subscriptions, assets, and liabilities
  • Google – so much of what we consume online now is powered by our somehow connected with Google. There is provision in place therefore for someone’s Google profile to be closed on passing.  There is currently no facility to have a Google ‘legacy contact’
  • Apple – again, much of our online footprint is in someway or other connected to our Apple ID. Apple does have provision for the pre appointment of a legacy contact, failing which relatives can liaise with Apple subject to privacy policies, and of course upon production of the proof of death, and their own authority to deal with the estate
  • LinkedIn – LinkedIn is a business networking platform used the world over. LinkedIn do provide the facility to memorialise the deceased’s profile – important perhaps given the nature of the app.
Social media buzzwords

A ‘digital will’ may prove useful when dealing with social media etc of a loved one.

What happens to Lifestyle Apps on death?

Many of us will have apps we use in relation to health, wellbeing, and hobbies and interests.  As with social media accounts, contacting the various providers will usually open up a simple process via their HELP function to close down profiles.  And equally, if they are subscription based, they will in any event likely automatically shut down once bank accounts are frozen, and subscription payments therefore stop.

How can a Digital Will deal with my Digital Estate?

Like a digital estate, a digital will is something of a concept, rather than anything defined in law.  It is a term that has been coined to describe a way that we can leave suitable instructions for our personal representatives/loved ones to deal with our online footprint after we die.

The traditional process of probate is of course very mush set in stone, and a process of legal standing in which the executors appointed in our will follow a set procedure.  A digital will is not legally binding on anyone.  Think of it simply as a cross between a traditional ‘letter of wishes’, and an inventory of our online footprint.

There is no formal layout to be followed – just let common sense prevail.  Obviously, it should include:

  • Platform name
  • Login credentials
  • Any thoughts or wishes you have

The practical challenge with a digital will is keeping it up to date!  We of course are constantly changing passwords, subscribing to new platforms, and so we have an ever-changing digital footprint to which we would like our personal representatives to access.

One school of thought to help with this is to make sure that all online accounts are kept together with login credentials in a centralised place (both Apple and Microsoft have facility for this).  This should remove or reduce the need to constantly be updating a ‘digital will’.

Free Probate Guide

We hope you have found this (and our many other) free probate guides helpful.  Do remember that it is just that – a guide, and should not be taken as legal advice specific to you (or any comments left within the article).  So, if you do need help, our team of expert probate solicitors are here to help!  We can assist with anything and everything relating to probate, wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.  If you would like to make contact, please either call, email us, or leave a comment below.  A big thank you for visiting QLAW – the home of all things legal…!

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