Death in cyberspace: Why you should leave your passwords in your will

There is no escaping technology - even in death. Technology is something we need to consider when preparing a will. Think of this as a "personal business continuity plan".

There is no escaping technology - even in death. Technology is something we need to consider when preparing a will. Think of this as a "personal business continuity plan".

New York resident Jerald Spangenberg passed away while playing the online game World of Warcraft in 2009. Regrettably he had not left instructions and details of his passwords and usernames. Owing to fears of online fraud and identity theft we are conditioned to create impenetrable passwords and not record the information.

With the ever increasing scope of the internet into our lives it is now incumbent on all of us to reflect on the online area of our lives. Many relatives will want to be able access e-mail, bank accounts or increasingly social networking sites following a death. Additionally, with ever increasing use of online banking a significant proportion of information concerning liquid assets is held online. There are also asset holding accounts which have no paper trail. If your relatives know about your online accounts it is far easier for them to deal with the accounts appropriately.

You may decide that it is more appropriate to give such information to the executors appointed under your will rather than your relatives. Executors are the people you appoint to be in charge of your affairs after your death and who will see that your wishes are carried out. When you die it is normally your executors or a close relative who will register your death with the registrar and obtain the death certificates.

Your options

So what are your options? A number of companies offer services to help people deal with online accounts and assets following a death. Alternatively, to help your executors carry out the administration of your estate, you could leave a memorandum with your will detailing all your online accounts. This will help to ensure they are not missed by the executors.

Of course, it is essential to regularly review your memorandum and update it if necessary. As this is an informal document it has the advantage of allowing you to change and update it as frequently as you like, without legal input and any associated costs.

Updating the memorandum is easier to say than to do. Best practice would be to update the memorandum each time you open a new online account. If that is not practical then perhaps consider updating it once a month or quarter or year and ensure your passwords and instructions are recorded.

The other alternative may be to turn to technology for help. There is software to download which will record all your passwords and encrypt them in a database located on your computer (or online in some cases). The advantage of this approach is that you can advise your executors of just one master password to obtain access to all your other ones. As you know, some operating systems are now equipped with this feature.

As online use grows more widespread, the need to make your wishes clear regarding your online accounts and assets will only intensify, and should be considered and discussed with your solicitor.


The contents of this article are for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article. www.barlowrobbins.com

About the authors

Lynsey Siveter is a solicitor at Barlow Robbins. She advises on wills, powers of attorney, inheritance tax planning, administration of estates and setting up charitable trust and personal injury trusts and is a full member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners.

Brett Farrell is an associate at Barlow Robbins Solicitors. He is a specialist technology and media lawyer and advises on all aspects of technology and media law, he has a wealth of experience in the regulated technology sectors such as the capital markets.

Read more on IT legislation and regulation

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