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The Internet

Online information

Information and advice about the probate process is available on thousands of websites. Some of it is good but a lot of it is incomplete, misleading or wrong. If you are searching for information we would suggest that if possible you restrict your searches to "UK pages only" and also consider restricting your searches to the past 12 months. This at least will ensure that most foreign advice pages are omitted and that you won't get outdated information.

You need to evaluate your sources. Generally speaking, the Government site HMRC.gov.uk is one of the most reliable. Charity sites are often very good. Solicitors' sites can sometimes have very good information which is almost invariably accurate, but they tend to lack practical detail because often they are selling their services. Forums can be useful because they discuss specific circumstances which general guides can't cover. Be wary of most forum replies unless they link to good references. There are several law forums which are very good.

Be particularly wary of some sites which offer advice on a large range of subjects. Very often these are American based sites registered with a British domain and their content is often a confusing mix of UK and American law. If you see the words "in some states", "circuit court", "licensed attorneys" or other American phrases you are best to keep clear.

Generally speaking it is a good idea to confirm information with more than one site.

Death in the Digital Age

There is an increasing awareness of the problems that are arising, when someone dies, as a result of the exponential growth of the internet. To a large extent legislation has failed to take account of the fact that people’s lives are increasingly being lived online. Unfortunately there are only partial solutions at the moment and you may well find yourself with some tricky problems to solve.

It must be said that the responsibility for sorting out digital life after death is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the personal representative. A solicitor appointed as executor or engaged to act in a professional capacity will generally expect to be presented with information he can then process. This could very well be the unsorted contents of a filing cabinet and a pile of unopened letters – no problem - but it’s difficult to envisage dropping off a PC when even the password to switch it on is not known.

There are probably three distinct areas where problems are going to arise.

Online accounts

The majority of bank accounts now offer online access. There is significant pressure to keep passwords strong and secure. This means that even if you know that an account with a particular institution exists you may be unable to access it because you don’t know the passwords. You won’t, therefore, be able to tell what the regular payments in and out of the account were and if decent paper records were not kept this could cause problems.

In fact the legal position is hardly clear but an account in a sole name probably should not be accessed due to the Terms and Conditions of the account. Even if a husband gave his wife permission to access his account this permission fails on his death.

In a situation like this it is important to write promptly to the bank to get details of direct debits and regular receipts.

Many banks are now encouraging paperless operation of their accounts where statements are notified by email. If the statements were not printed out and filed by the deceased you could find yourself in the situation of not even knowing that accounts exist.

It is usually possible to extract data from a PC. If you have any technical experience you could access the PC hard drive by either booting (starting) the PC from a bootable CD or USC flash drive. Alternatively you can remove the hard drive and install it in another PC. Once you have access to the hard drive you can look for folders on it which perhaps store downloaded statements or other clues to possible accounts. You could also check what cookies are stored, although this will involve methodical work identifying them. NatWest Bank, for instance, stores its cookies as NWOLB (which stands for NatWest Online Banking). Without access to the browser you will need to download a program to view cookies. If you suspect data is hidden or encrypted you may have little option other than to call in a specialist. A detailed description of how to hack data from a locked PC isn't appropriate here but it is possible.

There are some online companies that will securely store sensitive data to be made available on production of a death certificate and a will, and we suspect they will become more common.

 

More complex online problems

In extreme situations it could be that the deceased operated all of their investments online and dealt with the payment of all household and other bills online and retained no paperwork. They may not have left a spouse who could help identify banks, utility companies, insurers etc. so what can be done in these situations?

Step 1

If there is a surviving spouse they may be able to provide some help. You could ask questions such as:

  • Which bank did the deceased use?
  • Did they have a credit or store card?
  • Are there any paper records anywhere?
  • Where did they keep their filing?
  • Who did they get their electric and/or gas from?
  • Did they have a financial adviser?
  • Which solicitor did they use?
  • If employed – who was the employer?
  • If retired were they taking the state pension?
  • If unemployed or on other benefits – which benefits did they get?
  • Is access available to the computer, tablet/iPad or mobile phone which may have icons or app’s which give a clue as to financial and other institutions used. If email accounts can be accessed there may also be useful clues within email accounts

Step 1

If there is no surviving spouse or relative that knows the financial and other information of the deceased. You need to find a “footprint” to tap into the deceased’s financial affairs. You could try and identify one or more of the following:

  • Are there any paper records anywhere?
  • Is there a credit, debit or store card in the deceased’s wallet or possessions?
  • It is very likely that the deceased was in receipt of either a salary, benefits, or state pension so try and identify which of these it is
  • It may be that the deceased had other sources of income or ample cash resources and did receive any of employment, benefits or state pension
  • If so, what is the local authority and/or water company that deals with the council tax or water supply for that area?
  • Is access available to the computer, tablet/iPad or mobile phone which may have icons or app’s which give a clue as to financial and other institutions used. If email accounts can be accessed there may also be useful clues within email accounts

Step 2

It then becomes a detective exercise to “unlock” the online world of the deceased:

  • If you have been able to identify that they were in receipt of a salary, benefits or state pension then you can contact the provider and ask them for details of the bank account into which the payment is made
  • If you cannot identify any income sources then it is highly likely that they will have paid council tax and a water/drainage provider so contact the relevant local authority or water company and ask them for details of the sort code from which the payments were made. You can then look online and identify which bank it relates to. For a sort code identifier click here
  • Either or both of the above should enable you to find the bank account details. You will then need to contact the bank, provide evidence of your capacity to act and a death certificate and it is recommended that you request bank statements for the past 12 months.
  • The bank statements once received will provide details of monthly payments for utilities, credit card payments, insurance payments, income receipts such as dividends or rentals and a host of other useful information. The online world will rapidly start to reveal itself. You may also want to obtain statements for any credit cards for a 12 month period as certain payments may have been made by credit card.
  • You can also make contact with the bank and ask if other policies are held through the bank’s financial services division.

At the end of the day there is no perfect solution which is guaranteed to find all of the investments. You can always try mylostaccount.org or the other services noted in the directory section of this site. "Lost" assets will not generally be recorded on such sites until they have been dormant for at least 12 months so the estate may need to be kept open for a longer period.

It may be that you are unsure as to which gas and electricity supplier the deceased used and, particularly in colder months, the insurance company may have placed a condition on the property to keep it heated. As long as you have the meter numbers you can find out the suppliers via Ofgem. Click here to follow the link to the relevant site.

Digital property

As internet speeds increase and storage space costs become negligible many people are storing property on the “cloud”. This property could be music or ebook collections, which could have significant value, or it could be items such as photographs which may have less intrinsic value but much greater sentimental value. Of course exactly the same problem with passwords and knowing where property is arises, compounded by the vast number of possible places that property could be. In addition not many internet companies have a policy covering death and it is not clear whether a UK will has any authority with a company based for instance in America with servers in the UK.

It is possible that the deceased owned internet domains, some of which are very valuable. They may have operated a website or blog which produced an income from advertising. Even dormant sites can continue to generate income but if you are not able to renew the domain or the hosting fees then the site will shut down before too long.

Virtual life

Almost everyone now has an online presence of some sort. You may have a blog; you may be part of the 15% of the population of the world that uses Facebook; you may frequent chat rooms or forums. The world is slowly starting to understand that what you do online stays there for a long time. Various internet companies offer to manage the presence of the deceased. Although some companies such as Facebook allow you to delete accounts or transform them into memorials many have no policy at all. This particular problem is likely to get worse before genuine solutions emerge.

Removing online profiles

Most people have some form of online presence through social media and networking sites. In order to remove these you will need to do the following:

LinkedIn – obtain a “verification of death form” and submit this with details of the deceased’s email address and evidence of your capacity to act for the estate.

Facebook – a Facebook profile can either be removed or turned into a memorial site. To do this you will need to access the “deactivating, deleting and memorialising accounts” option from any Facebook user’s account. Again. You will need to provide evidence of the death and your capacity to act.

Twitter – in order to cancel  a Twitter account you will need to provide evidence of death both formally and via some other source such as an obituary, together with your capacity to act and a link to the deceased’s profile.

Email accounts – Google operate a “Google inactive account manager”, details of which are available on the Google site. Other email providers will require evidence of the death and your capacity to act.

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