Article by Cian Duane, O’Flynn Exhams Solicitors.
The digital sphere is fast-moving, and its effect on our culture can often be hard to quantify. One aspect of our online lives that is rarely discussed is what happens to our digital assets after our death.
While physical property is, perhaps, the first thing you might think of when considering what you will put in your will, it is also equally important to consider what happens to your less tangible possessions such as social media accounts and cryptocurrencies.
It is clear that more and more people are using technology to store and access data, both social and financial. In March 2018, the Department of Finance issued a Discussion Paper on Virtual Currencies and Blockchain Technology that estimated the collective value of the global virtual currency market to be worth around €320 billion. Meanwhile, Facebook touts 2.19 billion monthly active users, Instagram 1 billion users and LinkedIn 467 million members.
So what can you do from a legal perspective to ensure your online property is correctly bequeathed?
The legalities around social media accounts are currently somewhat vague. Families can ask for accounts to be removed, or accessed, while on other occasions, families have had default access to their loved ones’ accounts. Social media giants such as Facebook are implementing options to include ‘legacy contacts’ on your profile, but these also have issues that need to be addressed.
Many people might just want their social media footprint deleted or not accessible at all. Others may want their social media profiles maintained or continued as a record of their life. However, a 2011 survey in the UK found that only 1 in 10 people in Britain record passwords and online information in their wills. In our experience, very few people include instructions as to what is to be done with their social media accounts in case of death, be it of natural causes, or in untimely circumstances.
Downloaded items such as apps, e-books and music cannot be passed on, but you can ensure that any devices on which they are accessible, and the passwords for same, are given to your family on your passing. Other digital subscription services such as, for example, Spotify and Netflix also need to be considered. Providing your family members access to these accounts, and also to the relevant email address associated with them can help your family to shut them down and cancel subscriptions after your death.
While we certainly need to promote best practice for our online accounts in Ireland, our priorities should focus on setting up appropriate measures to deal with virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, where the financial consequences after someone has died have the potential to be severe, if dealt with incorrectly.
For example, in 2017, a man from the United States died suddenly and his family were unaware of his investment in Bitcoin. Bitcoins are stored in virtual wallets and each wallet uses a “public key”, essentially an address used for sending and receiving cryptocurrency which anyone can see. A further “private key” allows the investor to access the contents of the wallet. While the unbreakable cryptography of Bitcoin ensures security, it brings with it the risk that when an owner dies, unless they leave very clear instructions and relevant passcodes, that person’s beneficiaries could be locked out from the digital fortune.
Anyone who holds social media accounts, or has invested in cryptocurrency should consider including clear instructions as well as any relevant passcodes in their wills. This would ensure that their accounts are sensitively dealt with and their digital assets properly administered.
Cian Duane is a solicitor at O’Flynn Exhams, one of the largest law firms in Munster, providing a full suite of legal services to clients in a wide range of sectors. See more at www.ofx.ie