Your online info could outlast you, experts warn

SOCIAL media and online accounts do not die with you, with Facebook and Twitter accounts only deactivated after the user's family submits a death certificate.

Instructions on what should happen to digital legacies – e-mail, online banking, Facebook, Twitter, applications, computer games and other online accounts – after death are now featuring in South African wills.

Law Society of South Africa eLaw committee chairman Gavin McLachlan said a number of South African attorneys were already dealing with the digital aspects of wills.

"This is an important issue and practitioners must keep an open mind as things develop around them. Many useful things are stored in online mail accounts, let alone sentimental pictures or even messages people want to retrieve," he said.

"It can prove difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve or delete online content from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook or even any local service provider."

The British Law Society last week urged all Britons to leave clear instructions on their digital legacies in their wills, which are recognised in the British Law Society's Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme.

Although some may be reluctant to do so, South Africans are urged to share at least some digital access to bank accounts and other online assets with their spouses. McLachlan said sharing passwords might prove useful in the event of disability or sudden injury and could relieve some of the immediate burden on a grieving spouse.

Digital risk strategist and lawyer Paul Jacobson said dormant social media profiles and accounts could prove to be fertile ground for identity thieves, "especially if the late user didn't make use of the relevant privacy controls to restrict access to sensitive personal information".

Facebook and Twitter accounts can be deactivated only after the user's family submits a death certificate.

Jacobson said more people were using cloud services such as Evernote, Dropbox and Amazon S3 to store personal and business information. "It is very possible that a person could die and leave very little paper-based information which a family would require to manage and wind up the estate, because all of that data would be digitally stored in the cloud.

"The challenge is that the only person who tends to know how to access those accounts has passed away, taking those details with him or her," he said.

He said LastPass and 1Password gave users a master password, which could be passed on to a spouse or trusted relative. - Nivashni Nair