Digital Assets in the Administration of Estates

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When someone dies, it is common practice for the Executors of the estate to diligently gather up and consider the deceased’s financial paperwork in order to identify the assets and liabilities for which they will be responsible.

But what about the deceased’s digital records?

Historically it may have been reasonable to assume that anything important would eventually come to light from paper post, but these days it is increasingly common for correspondence to take place purely by email or even text messages.

Just as Executors would be negligent for ignoring a filing cabinet full of paperwork in the deceased’s home, these days it is no longer reasonable to ignore the deceased’s computer and other electronic devices. For example, the deceased may have held an online account, for which statements and correspondence had only ever been delivered by email. The Executors who failed to investigate fully and only later discovered the existence of the account may find themselves facing hefty interest and penalties charged by HM Revenue and Customs on any extra Inheritance Tax that should have been paid.

Of course, electronic devices present their own unique challenges, such as when they are password protected. Even if the Executors know the deceased’s passwords, they should take care before using these to ensure that they are not committing an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

As our lives become increasingly digital, for many people their records of greatest sentimental value – photos, videos and correspondence, for example – may only ever exist on a computer. Such files may have no financial value, and may not form part of the Executor’s legal responsibilities, but could still cause the deceased’s family great distress if they were deleted, or accidentally given to a stranger on a computing device that was sold. Similarly, the deceased may have had various kinds of online accounts, which could be closed or memorialised. Serious thought therefore ought to be given to how these should best be dealt with.

It is clear that the job of an Executor has changed significantly in recent years.

If you find yourself facing this responsibility, you should make sure that your legal advisors have the necessary expertise to assist.

If you would like any further details, please contact the probate specialists at Ashtons Legal, who will be able to help.


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