Managing Your Digital Assets After Death
A fascinating recent article in Time magazine entitled ‘On Facebook, the Dead Will Eventually Outnumber the Living’ truly grabbed our attention. Within the piece, the author Rachel Greenspan cites research by the University of Oxford Internet Institute on the importance of preserving our ‘collective digital histories’. While Facebook does allow account holders to plan who is allowed to access their account after death, whether to have a memorial page, or simply delete their account, the research does raise many questions; including the extent to which the general population plans for death in relation to their online life.
When it comes to Wills and estate planning, one of the questions we now ask our clients is, “have you considered your digital assets?” Many, it is fair to say, have not. We live in a reality where an increasing number of us will leave a legacy which is not tangible; rather it exists in the form of data – as digital currency, an online business, a website, social media account, computer software, or any other manner of digital property.
Each of these should be included within your Will, with a nominated executor, who can carry out your digital wishes once you die. In this article, we will explain what is meant by digital assets and why it is important to nominate a digital executor to handle these.
What is a digital asset?
A digital asset refers to any property owned in digital form. This may include:
- Music / voice files
- Communications (e.g. messages)
- Domain names
- Online accounts (including social media)
- Bank accounts
- Loyalty points
These may exist in a number of locations, including, on a computer, mobile phone, in the ‘cloud’, or on portable media such as a DVD, memory stick or hard drive.
What is a digital executor (also referred to as a digital manager)?
It is becoming increasingly commonplace for individuals considering their Will to include a specific digital executor. This is someone who you wish to handle your digital assets on your death. It is important to understand that you will still need a normal ‘executor’ who is legally responsible for the protection, payment of debts and taxes, and distribution of the remaining inheritance. The role of the digital manager (who will work in conjunction with the executor) will be to secure and carry out your wishes as defined in your Will for all of your digital assets, for example:
- Closing down accounts (i.e. memorialising or requesting deletion)
- Transferring ownership of online assets (were possible under the respective license agreement) such as digital property rights, reward points, music, videos, and apps.
- Downloading and handing over of photographs, videos, and any other electronic files
- Requesting cancellation of subscriptions
The digital executor will work from information provided to them in the form of a digital log and memorandum of wishes.
Steps in estate planning for your digital assets
From the outset, it is important to seek the guidance and expertise of a private client Solicitor who specialises in Wills and estate planning. They will ensure that no stone is left unturned in all aspects of your inheritance – whether digital or analog. The steps which need to be taken are as follows:
- Create a digital assets log – this includes login details for all of your online accounts, computers, mobile phones or other devices, along with any specific instructions for each. A hard copy should be kept secure (and up to date) preferably in a law firm’s strong room.
- Understand what will happen to your online assets if you do nothing – a Solicitor can advise you in relation to the most common providers. This will be determined by the terms and conditions you entered into when you created your accounts.
- Decide if you want your social media accounts to be memorialised or deleted – you may wish to draft a note to be left on the memorialised webpage.
- Create copies of electronic documents, photos, videos, or any other online content – you may wish to create hard copies and digital copies, to avoid any accidental loss of your digital assets.
- Decide what you want to happen to your digital assets – which items should be passed on and to whom? Do any items have monetary value, and if so, what would you like to do with them? If you own digital intellectual property, who do you wish to transfer this to? It is important to consider every digital item in turn and in the context of whether you have the legal right to transfer ownership or not.
- Consider confidentiality or content which may cause distress – if your digital assets may contain content which could cause distress to those inheriting, you may elect to permanently delete such items (e.g. emails).
Most people don’t realise the extent of their digital footprint and will be surprised how long it can take to document it fully. Without a detailed inventory and list of wishes, it would be almost impossible to undertake a thorough process of managing the digital assets and presence of a deceased individual. This may have consequences in terms of not being able to realise the full value of an estate, and leaving accounts open, which could cause emotional distress in the years following death. While planning what will happen to your digital possessions may take time and require regular updating, its importance cannot be overstated. Ultimately, for the good of the loved ones we leave behind, we should give as much attention to our intangible worldly goods, as we do our tangible ones.
If you would like help planning for your digital assets in your Will, or assistance dealing with digital assets in Probate, please contact us on 01202 802 807 to make an initial appointment with one of our expert Probate Solicitors, Alexandra Livesey or Paul Solomons.