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Families need access to digital assets of deceased loved ones

October 12th 2021

Probate lawyers are urging the government to introduce reforms to make it easier for families to access the ‘digital assets’ of deceased relatives.

Kendra Winter Associate Solicitor provides an update.

A new report carried out by STEP – the professional body for inheritance planning advisers – highlights the extent of the distress caused by being cut off from digital assets when family members die or become incapacitated.

The research was carried out in association with the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University in London.

It found that families need better support from social media companies and the government when it comes to accessing the accounts of ill or deceased loved ones.

STEP says that items such as social media accounts, photos and emails have become a common part of estate planning and administration in recent years.

The survey of 500 professional inheritance advisers found that nearly 60% have dealt with questions from clients about digital assets and 90% expect this to increase in future.

Clients most commonly asked about social media, email, cryptocurrencies, and cloud storage. The top five providers most mentioned regarding assets stored in the cloud were Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Dropbox.

The results also show that nearly a quarter of the respondents had clients who have experienced difficulties accessing digital assets of a family member, causing significant distress and frustration in many cases.

The problem is compounded by a lack of legal clarity when it comes to property rights. One in five respondents also mentioned an uncooperative attitude from service providers in situations where accounts cannot be accessed.

The report’s authors say the government must put in place clearer rules on property rights and rights of access by personal representatives. The authors also call on cloud providers to come to the table with inheritance planning experts to find more effective solutions for post-mortem account access and enable peace of mind for families.

Emily Deane, Technical Counsel at STEP, said: “Family members need to manage loved ones’ affairs after their death so must have access to financial and other information stored on computers and online cloud services. But an inability to obtain access is increasingly a cause of significant stress and concern.

“The need for effective solutions to this problem is becoming ever more critical. STEP and its members want to see better engagement from governments and service providers globally so that families can plan for their futures with certainty and clarity.”

Professor Christopher Millard of the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London said:

“The Law Commission of England and Wales is currently reviewing the property status of digital assets under English law. We look forward to their recommendations and we hope that they will address the urgent need to update succession law for the 21st century.”

We shall keep clients informed of developments.

If you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of Wills and probate please contact Kendra on 016977 2378 or click here to send her an email.

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