Over the last few decades the internet has profoundly changed and re-shaped our world. It has had an immense impact on our lives, allowing us to connect, share, create and store information in ways previously only the stuff of science fiction. In what has been a relatively short period of time, the spread of the internet across the globe has been incredible; as of 2019 there are estimated to be 3.8 billion email users and 2.7 billion Facebook users. As time goes on, many of them are beginning to ask an old question with a modern twist: ‘what happens to my digital assets when I die?’
Given the personal nature of much of our digital presence, it would not be unreasonable to assume that we own all of it. Yet this is not reality of the situation, with there being an important distinction between digital assets whose value is financial and those whose value is sentimental.
For digital assets which have a financial value the position is clearer. Examples include; accounts for cryptocurrency wallets, online-only banks, forex trading, online shopping and electronic payments. These are assets which are owned by the holder and will pass to their estate upon death. The personal representatives will have a duty to call in these digital assets, along with the other more traditional assets, and protect them for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the estate, under either a Will or the Intestacy Rules.
What is not always straightforward, however, is the discovery of such digital assets. Without much effort, anyone can accumulate a huge number of online accounts and, once they have died, their personal representatives might not always know about some or indeed any of them. Many people already prepare lists of assets when they update their Wills, to make things simpler for their executors. To reduce the chances of them being left forever adrift and unclaimed, it might be sensible to do the same for digital assets. It is important, however, not to record login and password details; not only would this be a security risk, it is also very likely to be against the relevant digital asset holder’s terms and conditions.
With regard to digital assets whose value is only sentimental, however, ownership is not clear-cut. The aforementioned terms and conditions, which have to be entered into before using an online service, will very often grant the user only a licence to use that online service. Licences end upon the death of the licensee and the personal representatives of a deceased licensee will not be able to take control of such sentimental digital assets on behalf of the estate.
In recognition of this problem, digital platforms have started offering options to help users protect their wishes when planning for the future. Google and Facebook allow users to nominate an Inactive Account Manager or Legacy contact, respectively; such a nominee will be allowed very limited access to a deceased user’s account. Other digital platforms will require that accounts be closed, whilst some will allow memorialisation or even provide an archive of uploaded media.
Moreover, whilst people might be starting to ask what happens to their digital assets when they die, they are also finding that the answer remains elusive. Societies are only starting to approach the issue and, given the dynamism and speed of change allowed for by the internet, it is likely the parameters for discussion will change in the future. In the meantime, it is important for everyone to ensure that they have a Will in place which both reflects their wishes for their digital assets and sufficiently empowers and informs their executors to allow them to carry out those wishes.
For further advice on this and other related issues, please contact Paul Hill in our Private Client Department.
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