Digital Legacy Disputes
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What is a Digital Legacy?
A person’s digital legacy is the sum total of the different digital files, social media accounts, e-mails, blogs, and other information that a person accesses and stores online. These can include such digital items as:
- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+, and other social media accounts
- Blogs and other published works
- Soundcloud accounts and other audio files
- Accounts associated with sales and commodities such as Amazon, eBay, Etsy accounts
- Certain financial records
- Various other types of accounts and information
The fate of a person’s digital legacy depends mainly on whether the person owns the account and its information or content. For instance, most social media accounts such as Facebook and its contents are not actually owned by the person. Thus, their account will typically terminate upon death, and they won’t be able to pass its contents in a will.
On the other hand, if the person has ownership rights such as copyrights, trademarks, or other such protections for a work, they may be able to pass those items to another person through a will. In many cases, a person’s works and creations (such as musical recordings, etc.) may be “lost” if the account expires and no one is granted access to the account.
What are Some Common Digital Legacy Disputes?
Digital assets can often be the source of legal disputes after a person has become deceased. Some common digital legacy disputes include:
- Information being “lost” after an account has expired after the person’s death
- Others claiming ownership over copyrighted and other protected materials
- Disputes over items and assets named in the person’s will (i.e., disputes over distribution of the assets)
- Persons gaining unauthorized access to an account (this can be an issue for accounts associated with sales and exchanges of goods, such as Amazon accounts, eBay accounts, and Etsy accounts)
- Theft of the person’s identity (or another connected person’s identity) through their account after death
Finally, disputes over digital content can arise from the executor of the person’s will. For instance, if the will executor fails to carry out the instructions regarding digital assets, it could lead to legal action from the person’s survivors or other parties. Criminal consequences can result from more serious matters, such as when the executor attempts to use the person’s digital assets for their own gain.
How are Digital Legacy Disputes Resolved?
Disputes over a person’s digital estate (the sum total of their digital assets) may require legal action to resolve. These can include:
- A review of the person’s will to determine their intent regarding their assets
- Contact with the host of the account to determine the legal status of its content (i.e., contacting Facebook or other account providers regarding digital content)
- Removal of an executor who has breached their duties
- Redistribution of assets to more clearly reflect the decedent’s wishes
In some cases, civil liability can result for any losses caused by a digital legacy dispute. As mentioned, criminal consequences can also arise depending on the circumstances.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with a Digital Legacy Dispute?
Digital legacy laws are still very new, and each state has different laws regarding these matters. In fact, not every state has specific statutes to cover digital legacies and digital asset distribution. You may need to hire a trusts, wills, and estates lawyer in your area if you need help with digital legacy issues. Your attorney can provide you with legal advice and representation regarding any disputes. In terms of managing digital assets, it’s always best to plan ahead of time to determine what will happen with assets upon a person’s death.
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Last Modified: 03-09-2016 12:13 PM PST
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