digital files access

Lessons from widow’s fight for digital memories

A judge this week ordered Apple to give a widow access to her late husband’s online accounts which contained thousands of treasured family photographs and videos.

Unfortunately, her husband had not made a Will, and without consent regarding access to the account, the tech giant said it would release the content only under a court order. It took the widow three years and thousands of pounds in her fight to access her husband’s Apple account. It would have cost a great deal more had the lawyers not offered to work for free.

The case highlights not just the importance of making a Will but of the need to make sure your loved ones are aware of how digital accounts might be accessed if you die. “In this digital age, online accounts should be considered in the same way as savings, house deeds and heirlooms,” said Karen Starkey, private client solicitor at KWW. 

When thinking about Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney, everyone should consider preparing a list of their usernames and passwords for their online accounts. But a word of caution: Karen points out that the terms and conditions of most internet service providers (ISPs) prohibit the transmission of such information by the account holder, and they will want to see proof of authority (such as death certificate or grant of probate) before access is permitted.

While everyone will be keen to stop bills mounting up for a dead person’s online shopping, or on their electricity or gas accounts, which are often managed online, a delay in notifying the ISPs may be advisable to prevent an automatic shutdown and deletion of some online accounts.

Popular social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are hard to delete without the right access, and their continued presence could prove distressing to relatives and friends. “Most of us have so many online accounts and passwords it’s difficult to remember them all,” said Karen. “Write a dossier and keep it a secure place like a locked desk or safe. That way, you not only help yourself in a moment of forgetfulness but you spare family members a major hassle trying to unravel your digital life after you’ve gone.”

Karen recommends keeping separate dossiers of usernames, e-mail addresses and passwords which can be handed to executors or attorneys as part of that person’s estate. Passwords should not be included in the Will itself, because its contents are made public after it passes probate. 

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