The Guardian probes the very 21st-century issue of how an executor should handle the deceased’s on-line assets, such as PayPal credits, e-mail accounts, web domains and Facebook pages.
The following article is from The Guardian
Although people increasingly live their lives online, few bother to specify what should happen to their digital assets once they log off for good. But failure to plan for the digital afterlife can cause problems for those left to sort out the affairs of the deceased. Without a username and password family members can struggle to access valuable web domains, online accounts – even photographs and documents on a PC.
“People aren’t very aware of what you might call their living online legacy – potential employers looking at their Facebook accounts, for example. The issue of what happens to that information after their death is an extension of that,” says Yorick Wilks, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Tom Stuart was an active eBay member until he passed away in November 2007. His son, Darren, believes there could be up to £1,000 in his father’s PayPal account. But he has been unable to gain access: his father left no will and no indication of what the password might be.
Stuart emailed the account review team in March 2008 in the hope of withdrawing any funds in the account. “All I got back was an automated response,” he says. “I phoned the customer services department and eventually got put through to someone. He wanted a solicitor’s letter saying I was the executor of the estate. I told him, ‘We don’t have that information. There was no will.’ And the response was basically, ‘That’s our policy.’ ”
If someone dies intestate then a copy of the death certificate and proof of next of kin – which Stuart possessed – is typically all that is required to release funds from an account if the amount is under £5,000.
“The bank, the life insurance company, his pension provider – they were all happy to deal with us. All of them except for PayPal. We just gave up in the end. We didn’t have what they wanted, and they weren’t going to give us access.”
When asked to clarify PayPal’s policy regarding access to a deceased individual’s account, a spokesperson said that “certain documents such as a copy of the death certificate, the will and photo ID for the executor” were needed. It is now looking into Stuart’s case.
David Hardie, a solicitor specialising in wills and probate at law firm Pannone, said he is yet to come across someone wanting to add digital assets to their will. “The generations that are into these services have not by and large started dying yet. So as probate practitioners, we have not yet seen the problems that could emerge.” By default digital assets are “the property of the estate, even if they’re property with no value”. Some assets, such as blogs and photographs, may also be subject to intellectual property law.
Facebook puts the profile of deceased person into a memorial state upon notification of their death. Their status is removed, they are withdrawn from any groups and access is set to “friends only”. Facebook encourages people to use the profile to remember the deceased. They will, however, remove it at the request of the next of kin.
Donna Rawling lost her husband, Tom Cooper, in July last year. “I managed to wrap up his affairs, but the area that I was left with was his presence on the web,” she says. Tom was a motorcycle enthusiast, visiting many different countries on his bike and posting pictures of his travels on his blog. He was also a member of Friends Reunited and probably “a myriad of other sites” 0f which Rawling is unaware. She describes his continuing presence on the web as “eerie”, and would like some of the information removed.”Normally you get in touch with friends and acquaintances and colleagues and let them know what’s happened,” she says. “That gives you closure and stops you being contacted in future and asked how you both are. But to my knowledge, there’s no way of doing that with the web. The perception is that he is still alive and well and having fun on his motorbike.”