Wills should include usernames and passwords, say top lawyers


To make it easier for executors to resolve e-mail, internet banking and social networking affairs after death, clients are being advised by Britain's top law firms to leave their usernames and passwords in their Wills.

The unregulated nature of the online environment and the policy differences between websites mean that a deceased person's relatives might be unable to access web-based assets or protect social networking profiles unless they have the correct personal login details.

The situation has led top lawyers to argue that people need to find out what their digital providers' policies are in the event of death. They should also leave comprehensive instructions in their Wills on how to deal with their 'digital footprints'.

Leave your usernames and passwords in your will

According to a new study by the webhost Rackspace and Goldsmiths College, 11% of British adults have considered including usernames and passwords in their Wills.

1.78 million Facebook users are expected to die throughout the world this year, nearly 200,000 of whom are over 55. Head of Wills and Probate at Simpson Millar LLP, noted how the generation that has grown up with social networking is now of an age where arranging a Will is a priority.

"Clearly a person's possessions in the digital age are more than simply solid and tangible, like property and furniture," she said. "There's a strong argument for formally including as part of an estate within a Will important details that relate to online activity, such as passwords, usernames and profiles."

Most e-mail and social network providers do not disclose passwords and usernames to next of kin, with terms and conditions dictating different access levels.

MySpace and Facebook allow close family members to shut down or 'memorialise' a deceased loved one's profile, effectively freezing the account. Google requires a court order to disclose e-mails, while access is completely denied by Yahoo!.

Our Head of Wills and Probate believes the time is now right for online policies to be regulated. "Some clients are finding it difficult to shut down accounts, and the varied systems are confusing. Some processes take longer than others and there's a minefield of differing documentation."

The Law Society's Wills and Equity Committee chairman Richard Roberts said that sites should unify their policies. "The website providers need to have a code of conduct that says if we are approached by a family member, as long as we're satisfied that this person is dead and this person is speaking with authority we'll take the page down."

Richard Harper, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, acknowledged that social networks have been slow to create a firm policy on death and that terminating a profile was often "more difficult than closing a bank account."

Our Head of Wills and Probate concludes that online login and profile details are often as sensitive as 'traditional' personal details such as bank account numbers and statements.

"It makes sense to treat them as you would any valuable assets you plan to pass on to your loved ones," she said. "If you are drawing up your Will and you're unsure what your various online providers' policies are, contact them for details of what you need to do, and what actions your loved ones should take when the time comes."

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