Q: Sadly my daughters husband passed away last year unexpectedly. We are trying to assist her in sorting out his estate and other matters, but much of his personal data and information is held online. In particular she is keen for the personal accounts he held such as Facebook and Google mail to be closed. Our first attempts to contact these companies to ask how we do this have been met by either no response at all or a refusal to help due to confidentiality. How can we get around this and ensure these accounts are closed?
A: It’s not normally a problem for families to close accounts with internet service providers (ISP’s) after an individual’s death. The policies of both Google and Facebook mean they will usually comply with requests, provided they’re accompanied by evidence of authority to deal with the estate. As is the case with most asset holders, your daughter will need to send the ISPs evidence of her identity, a certified copy death certificate and a copy of the Grant of probate or letters of administration in her late husband’s estate.
The situation may be different if, however, instead of wishing to close your son-in-law’s accounts your daughter wanted to gain access to them. Whilst there has yet to be a test case in the UK on this point, there have been two cases in the US.
The parents of Benjamin Stassen recently obtained a court order forcing Facebook and Google to allow them access to their late son’s accounts. Benjamin Stassen committed suicide in late 2010 without leaving a note. His parents wanted to look through his accounts to try and find some explanation for his suicide. Facebook and Google initially refused to cooperate, unsuccessfully citing client confidentiality in defence.
Prior to that the most widely publicised case to date involved Yahoo!. When Lance Cpl Justin Ellsworth was killed in Iraq in November 2004 his father wanted to create a memorial to him using emails written and received whilst in the Middle East. Yahoo!, adhering to their terms of service, refused to allow access on the basis of privacy. However, the family obtained a court order forcing Yahoo! to release the correspondence.
Although both these cases concern US law, there can be no doubt that UK Courts would have regard to them as setting a precedent for UK cases. ISPs must either start requiring users to specify what should happen to their accounts on death (perhaps as part of their set up procedures) or respect existing probate and succession laws.
Internet users should also consider making formal arrangements in respect of their digital estates. Preserving and transferring the value of virtual goods and profiles is a three stage process as follows:-
1. Digital Inventory – Start by completing a spreadsheet listing all digital assets, profiles, emails, devices, and gaming accounts. If no one knows about them they can’t be preserved. In each case list user names, type of digital media and most importantly state your wishes.
2. Digital Will – Once you know what you have you must appoint executors to deal with your digital estate. The executors will be responsible for gaining access and, where relevant, closing or transferring accounts to your heirs.
3. Password Storage – If steps 1 and 2 are followed the ISPs ought to provide your digital executors with access information. You could avoid delay and uncertainty by storing passwords online with one of the many secure password storage websites. However, concerns have been raised about the long-term security of such sites. One alternative is to store the information on a separate password protected memory stick, released to your digital executors after your death.
Nicola Plant, Private Client Partner at Pemberton Greenish LLP
Answered on Thursday, 11 October 2012