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Bring your online life down to earth

As more and more of us move our lives into the online world, Craig Williams, Partner in the Litigation and Dispute Resolution team at B P Collins LLP, says it’s important to ensure essential information doesn’t get lost in cyberspace.

10 May 2012

The way we live and communicate has changed dramatically over the past decade. For many, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other similar sites, provide what is effectively an online diary of our lives.

At the same time, our computers, notebooks, tablets and smartphones have become today’s answer to more traditional photo albums, music and film collections, and address books. And, as cloud computing adds yet another new dimension, there’s even more opportunity to store personal possessions online.

This is all very well – until something goes wrong.

If an individual dies without leaving his or her executors with a detailed list of online accounts and access passwords, then recovery of data and information can be a lengthy and frustrating business.

Not least because experience shows that online providers are often unwilling to deal with executors in a simple and consistent way, putting up additional barriers at a time when a speedy conclusion is required.

For many, online banking provides a convenient way to check accounts, transfer money and such like, while the increasing popularity of internet shopping means many of us will have online accounts with a variety of retailers.

Not giving executors access to all this information can make it extremely difficult for them to identify exactly who they should be talking to and where bills may need to be paid or money refunded.

In addition, one recent survey revealed that a quarter of adults have more than £200 worth of possessions stored online, from music and videos to online gambling – even something as simple as having an online National Lottery account can be valuable – and almost a third of people thought these online possessions were valuable enough to pass on to relatives.

So, if this information is so valuable, where should it be stored?

Including account information and passwords in the will itself is not to be recommended, as this is likely to become a public document, effectively releasing the information to everyone.

Many of our clients already leave an informal letter, kept with their will, which is designed to give guidance to their executors or trustees about administering their will or trusts.

In our view, this is the ideal place to include instructions about how to access online bank accounts and login information which can then be securely stored, electronically or in hard copy, elsewhere.

Of course, details need to be reviewed and updated as circumstances change but it is well worth making the effort and if they ever need the information your executors will be very grateful indeed.

It’s not just in the financial arena where passwords are important.

Leaving a list of passwords for social media pages can also help relatives communicate with friends and colleagues and tie up loose ends after someone dies, as well as retrieve messages, photographs and other data simply and easily.

Interestingly, we’re also finding that in the area of contentious probate – where I specialise – having access to online profiles and social media sites is now playing an increasingly important evidential role in disputes relating to wills and probate.

For example, many people use these sites to store a tremendous amount of personal information about themselves, far more than they may ever have written in a diary – even if they bothered to keep one.

They often share personal thoughts and feelings about relationships on the internet, they post information about new jobs and their day at work, whether or not they got promoted or received a pay rise. Plans for moving home, buying a car, going on holiday and who to share it with, loves, hates and passions are recorded for posterity.

By doing so, individuals probably don’t realise that they are in fact creating a new source of evidence which can, if required, be used in contested probate proceedings.

The information stored on those sites can be hugely valuable information as contemporaneous notes of their thought processes at the time and provide an insight into their testamentary intentions.

Which means, when the validity of a will is disputed, it seems increasingly likely that Judges will turn to evidence from social media sites and email accounts, alongside other information, to help them reach a decision.

So, next time you’re updating your Facebook page – remember that what you say could have lasting implications for your lifetime and beyond.,

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