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Bereaved families “cut off” from digital assets

Families often find it hard or impossible to access the digital assets of loved ones after they die, a major study has revealed.

The research, published in collaboration with the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and Queen Mary University of London, recommends “urgent reforms” to help executors access the online accounts required to complete estate administration.

According to the report, families are often “cut off” from digital assets, such as social media accounts, cloud storage, cryptocurrency wallets, and emails, when loved ones die or become incapacitated – causing significant “distress” and “frustration” during estate administration.

The survey of 500 professional inheritance advisors found that 60 per cent have dealt with questions from clients about digital assets, while 25 per cent have had clients who have experienced difficulties accessing digital assets of a family member.

But with digital assets becoming an increasingly common part of estate planning and administration, advisors expect queries to increase to 90 per cent in the near future.

The most common queries related to the ‘big five’ digital platforms, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Dropbox, with one in five clients citing difficulties with uncooperative service providers in situations where accounts cannot be accessed.

Commenting on the survey, author Dave Michels said legislators “must put in place much clearer rules on property rights and rights of access by personal representatives”.

“Digital assets can have great sentimental value, so it’s important that people have legal certainty as to what they can pass on after death. I know I’d want my wife to access our family photos stored in my iCloud account, after I die,” he said.

Donna Smy, a Director with Palmers Solicitors, who specialises in Wills, Probate and Estate Administration, said: “Digital assets have gained increasing importance in recent years. They can include obtaining access to sentimental images such as online photos and other social media content but also more sensitive and confidential information such as emails, passwords, medical and financial records and even Bitcoin investments.

“It is therefore important to consider how you wish your digital assets to be handled after your death and to leave instructions in your Will, with provision for gaining the appropriate access to your records.”

For help and advice on all aspects of making a Will, please get in touch with us.