The difficulties of inheritances locked in digital accounts

There is no doubt that since the early part of this year, we have all turned increasingly to the Internet to help run our everyday lives.

When the UK was in lockdown, there seemed to be no other option.  If the shops and banks are shut, then we naturally turn to the digital High Street for shopping or to online banking and investing.

However, have you ever really thought what happens to your online banking and investments when you are no longer physically here?  Who can access them?  How difficult is it?  No-one wants to think about their own mortality as we are all going to live forever – right?

Do we need to give this some serious thought?  The answer is yes!

Digital assets

Have a look at our excellent post from September 2019, ‘Don’t let your Digital Assets end up in a Digital Grave’.  Just to recap, there are lots of different types of digital assets, such as –

  • Social media accounts – e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – not just your photos and posts, but followers too
  • Email accounts
  • Photos that may be stored in the cloud
  • Intellectual property, such as domain names
  • Online shop fronts e.g. on Etsy or Amazon
  • Investments and bank accounts

All these digital assets have a value, whether sentimental or monetary.  Careful thought needs to be given as to what is to happen to those assets after your death.  Digital assets are not all equal – how one type of digital asset is treated after death will not be the same as another.  Therefore, it is important when making a Will to address these issues.

Online banking and investments – some statistics

Turning to online investments and banking, it is quite astonishing how quickly we have adopted digital banking, something that perhaps a generation or two ago would have been unusual.  Take a look at these figures from a recent survey carried out by Finder (www.finder.com/uk/digital-banking-statistics) in September 2020 –

  • Almost a quarter (23%) of British adults have opened an account with a digital only bank (i.e. a bank with no High Street presence).  This amounts to 12 million people
  • Just over 1 in 10 British adults (12%) have fully switched to a digital-only bank
  • Nearly half (47%) of those who use them keep less than £1000 in a digital bank
  • Two-thirds of banking customers say they plan to convert fully to a digital only bank in the future

This is all amazingly easy and convenient and 24/7, so surely, it is just as easy and convenient for our loved ones to access the accounts when we die?  Unfortunately, not.  A recent study by Direct Line Insurance published in The Gazette in September 2020 (https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices/content/103816) shows that many probate lawyers say that the increased use of digital banking is making it harder to access assets in a deceased’s estate when they die.

The traditional method of ascertaining assets when someone dies is to look for physical evidence, such as bank statements, cards, credit card bills.  However, if an account is online, there will be no paperwork and assets may be easily overlooked.  As a result, assets may come to light years later.  Sometimes, being a probate specialist involves a little detection work – it is amazing what you can discover about a person simply by looking at their bank statements.  But this relies on physical evidence, which may not always be there.

We are constantly reminded about the importance of Internet security and most specifically, not writing down passwords.  Therefore, everyone carries around a lot of information in their heads.  Or it may be that biometric security, such as a fingerprint, is the method of access.

This can make an already difficult time even more stressful.

How does digital banking affect Executors?

According to the research –

  • 88% of probate lawyers believe the rise in digital banking has made it harder to find a deceased person’s financial accounts
  • Probate specialists have struggled to find all the financial accounts tied to an estate in 28% of cases in the last 12 months
  • A lack of physical cards (62%) and an increased use of fingerprints and facial recognition (58%) were largely to blame for the increased difficulty of estate administration

The factors making accessing assets more difficult also included a greater number of financial services providers on the market, accessing someone’s email accounts to access information from financial service providers and people forgetting where they held money

More than a fifth of people (38%) said they did not know where their spouse or partner’s financial assets were held and almost two-thirds (66%) did not know where their parents held money. 

Therefore….

This underlines the importance of talking to your loved ones and having an effective, properly drafted Will in place. 

It is also having that difficult discussion with your loved ones about where to start looking for assets and how to access those assets, should the worst happen. Our experienced probate solicitors have a huge wealth of experience in drafting Wills and dealing with the administration of estates and make the time less stressful for you.

Look at our posts, ‘Points to consider when planning for end of life’ from May 2020 and ‘Information to gather for your Probate Solicitor’ from March 2020 which cover making a Will and the administration of estates.

This article was written by Annaliese Barber, Wills, Trusts & Probate Solicitor and Notary Public here at Richard Reed. To talk to Annaliese about any of the points made in this article, contact her on: 0191 567 0465 or email: info@richardreed.co.uk

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