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Digital Legacies Need Legal Protection

Digital Legacies Need Legal Protection

New powers over what happens to digital legacies upon death have been called for by solicitors and legal academics.

The debate was ignited after a recent legal decision in Germany involving a 15-year-old girl who was killed by a train in 2012. Her parents were trying to establish if she had committed suicide and they had sought access to her chat messages and posts in order to find out whether she had been bullied.

But Facebook argued that opening up her account would compromise the privacy of the teenager's contacts. A first court in Berlin had ruled in favour of the family, saying that the contents of the girl's account could be seen as similar to letters and diaries, which "can be inherited regardless of their content". But earlier this year, an appeals court ruled in favour of Facebook, saying that a contract existed between the girl and the social media company and that it ended with her death.

Although online assets in the UK lie with the service provider, there is still an enormous lack of clarity surrounding digital legacies and the rights people have to access them following death.

Website policies vary and given that websites will tend to operate across several jurisdictions it is unlikely that a change of law in any one jurisdiction would assist families in their request for access.

In order to prevent families from losing this content forever, it has in the past been suggested that users should be given the opportunity to state whether account details should be disclosed to relatives upon death; however if this were to be the case, the privacy of third-parties associated with the account would be affected, giving rise to a complex set of considerations that will need to be resolved in the near future.

In their Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme Protocol, the Law Society currently simply advises that any “digital assets” should be kept in a Personal Assets Log.

If you would like further advice or information about any matter relating to Wills, Probate or Inheritance Tax, please contact Iain Robson on 01325 466461 or email iain.robson@close-thornton.co.uk

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