What happens to your digital assets after death?.

Kerry Sawyer discusses what happens to digital assets after death in Essence February 2019 issue.

We live in ever-changing and unpredictable times. Modern life with constantly changing digitalisation means the pace of change is now continual and faster than ever before.

It is now the norm when out and about to see people living their lives through their mobile phones and social media. This means that more often than not, it is highly likely every one of us will have a ‘digital life’ and ‘footprint’. This is particularly so as more and more people have digital assets.

A digital asset is anything that exists in a binary format and comes with a right of use. Any data that does not have a right of use is not an asset. For example, a lot of you will have digital assets such as email accounts and social networking. Many will be familiar with and will likely to be using on a daily basis social media  like Facebook, photo sharing accounts such as Instagram, music libraries such as Spotify, shopping accounts like EBay, PayPal and Amazon or the more recently familiar cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Dash.

Your digital life may also include items stored digitally on your computer, iPad or smartphone such as word documents, videos, spreadsheets, photographs etc.

The different types of digital assets is increasing exponentially and with life as it is this does not seem likely to slow down. The number of people who have a digital life is substantially rising and it is highly unlikely that a person will not have any digital existence, especially since we are becoming ever more reliant on digital technology.

Despite the increase in different digital assets penetrating our daily lives and its increasing involvement in our lives, it is clear that whether we like it or not – digitalization is and will continue to be part of our lives and everything points towards it becoming any increasing part of our lives.

Unfortunately, the law has not adapted to the changes as quickly as we would like.

As a result, digital assets are often forgotten about when someone passes away. This is a critical overlook given that a substantial amount of a person’s estate may now be digital and quite often, those assets can be very valuable; for example there may be a balance on your PayPal or eBay account or you may have some valuable cryptocurrency.

In addition, you may want your family or friends to have the benefit of your accounts; for example, to have the benefit of your music library although you need to be aware that different providers of digital assets have different rules regarding succession. It is important to take note of this when setting up your online accounts. Some providers do not allow you to leave the content of the asset to a chosen beneficiary; for example, the content on your iPod is licensed to you to listen to, not purchased and therefore although you can leave the iPod to your chosen beneficiary, you are unable to leave the content. You should therefore check with the rules regarding succession with the service provider. Understandably, this can quite often be overlooked.

Even in cases where digital assets are not forgotten about and Executors are aware of their existence, given that most accounts are password protected, there is the practical difficulty of how your Executors gain access to them after you die, without tackling formal and time-consuming red tape of the different organisations involved.

You should consider reviewing and updating your Will. Many Wills do not refer to or deal with digital assets, meaning that in many cases, there is no authority for your Executors to deal with your digital assets under your Will. You may also want to consider appointing a separate Executor to deal with your digital assets.

Unless steps are taken to adapt and recognise the value of digital assets, it is likely that many digital assets will continue to be overlooked when an individual passes away. This could result in these digital assets surfacing several years after the administration of an estate is wound up, which can be extremely problematic.  Or more distressing, social media accounts such as Facebook accounts, which may have many personal postings and photos very personal to you continuing to be seen on the social media platform and continuing as an ongoing shrine as the representatives struggle to deal with the formal requirements of the organisation before the account can be formally shut down and taken offline, so to say.

Therefore, it is extremely important for you to take steps now. You should keep and maintain a spreadsheet documenting your digital assets which should be updated from time to time. It may be necessary on such spreadsheet to provide clear instructions on how to access your digital assets; this may particularly be the case if you own bitcoins or gaming credit. It is important to ensure that any spreadsheet is securely password protected but at the same time, that the spreadsheet can be assessed by your trusted Executors on your death. You want to enable your Executors to deal with these issues as quickly and easily as possible.

You can secure these safely with your Will. 

If in light of the above, you would like to review your Will, please contact:

Julie Man of Mundays LLP on 01932 590643 or by email at Julie.Man@mundays.co.uk.

Jeremy Duffy of Mundays LLP on 01932 590597 or by email at Jeremy.Duffy@mundays.co.uk.

Kerry Sawyer of Mundays LLP on 01932 590664 or by email at Kerry.Sawyer@mundays.co.uk.

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