There are few areas of everyday life left unaffected by the impact of digital technology. The increasing prevalence of digital media, online storage of content and the huge range of services accessed online mean that dealing with digital assets after death is becoming an increasingly complex issue. From email to digital currency, family photos and social media profiles, as well as videos and music tracks; what happens to these digital assets after death can cause major issues for personal representatives and family members.
What does the term ‘digital assets’ actually mean?
An asset is generally something owned by a person. Often what are referred to as digital assets are not actually owned by an individual. The term covers material in a wide range of online accounts, for example, social media pages, online bank accounts, Paypal, Spotify, LinkedIn profiles and many more. There may be videos on You Tube, photos in Flickr or any number of cloud-based accounts. In most cases, a person will simply be a service user signing up to the terms and conditions of the service provider.
Digital assets can largely be split into material things of financial value accessed digitally that can be left in a will or sentimental digital assets for which careful provision needs to be made in order to preserve them. For either category, the importance of considering the extent of a person’s digital assets and thinking about what might happen to them after death is clear.
Often on death, the service will simply terminate, and there will be no right to access the stored content. The terms and conditions of the service provider determines what happens to these digital assets on death, but there are steps that can be taken to preserve the many types of digital assets for the future.
Financial Digital Assets
Some assets are accessed digitally although they also exist in the real world such as bank accounts or the funds in an online escrow like Paypal. Executors need to know of the existence of such accounts and how to access them in order to fully value the estate.
A person may also hold investments in a digital cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin and access to the digital wallets will be needed by those dealing with the estate. Executors will need to secure these investments which will form part of the estate or may be left to a beneficiary. It is vital to keep a list of the accounts and access information, kept regularly updated. Many Solicitors will offer this service as part of their estate planning services.
These accounts do not belong to individuals but are hosted by a provider. Some Social Media platforms like Facebook and Instagram offer the option of deleting an account on death or memorialising it, meaning that it remains open for other people to see and comment on. Facebook content can also be downloaded and stored offline. Twitter will close a users account on death but is able to provide an archive of public tweets.
Email providers have different rules on what happens with inactive accounts. Often a person will have separate personal and business emails which also needs to be considered.
Photos, songs and videos that are stored online can be of huge personal if not financial value. As they are not physical assets like paper photographs, steps need to be taken to preserve them. They can be stored on a separate hard drive, for example.
Pre death planning to deal with digital assets
It is sensible to make provision for what happens to digital assets in a Will as well as ensuring that relevant access details are securely stored but accessible, to avoid some of the complications that can arise after death. There are some companies, such as Social Embers, which offer Digital Legacy Toolkits which can mae this task much simpler for those responsible for probate. It can be disconcerting for loved ones coping with the emotional impact of death and seeking the comfort of photos or memorable online posts, to find that they may no longer be available. This is why planning on how to deal with digital assets is a vital part of making provision for what happens after death. Despite its increasing reach into all of our lives, many people fail to consider what will happen to their digital assets after death.
Accessing Digital Assets
One of the major problems to overcome in dealing with digital assets after death is identifying and gaining access to the various online accounts. Even for cloud-based accounts, where a lack of login details for a local device like a phone or laptop is not an issue, usernames and passwords will be required.
Keeping an up-to-date inventory of online accounts and login details is a sensible step. It is vital that this is kept safe and secure but also that Executors and Solicitors know where the information can be found.