Rachel Thompson's three year long battle with Apple to gain access to her late husband's account highlights the difficulty of navigating the terms and conditions of online service providers after death and is another example of how the law is struggling to keep up with the pace of technology.
In today's digital world, almost everyone has an online presence and owns 'digital assets'. In the United Kingdom, there is no legal definition of what constitutes a digital asset but it is generally accepted to include photographs and videos stored on computer devices or online, blogs, e-books, social media statuses and tweets, plus information contained in documents, such as emails.
While digital assets can take many forms, most of those with sentimental value are now stored or shared online. When creating online accounts, we regularly agree to the standard terms and conditions offered by the online service provider. These cannot be varied or negotiated and there's no uniform approach among providers as to how personal representatives can close accounts or obtain digital records. For example, Apple's terms and conditions state that your account is non-transferable and any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your account terminate upon your death unless otherwise required by law. This means that a court order must be obtained in order to transfer Apple accounts to a user's next of kin. Google and Facebook take a more practical approach and allow you to select a nominee (known as an 'Inactive Account Manager' and 'Facebook Legacy Contact') who will be allowed access to your account. Twitter will work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate, to have an account deactivated.
This lack of cohesiveness and the issues surrounding privacy and ownership of online content mean that users need to be proactive and make plans to have their digital assets disposed of according to their wishes.
If you would like discuss how to incorporate provision for your digital assets into your estate plan, feel free to contact a member of our Private Client team.
Rachel Thompson, 44, spent thousands of pounds forcing Apple to open the account so she could help her daughter Matilda, ten, remember her father through images he stored online.