We now live in a world where most of our accounts are accessed online via computers, tablets or smartphones. Fraud concerns mean we are encouraged not to write down PINs or passwords but this poses the question of what happens to such assets when you die or lose capacity.
There is no definitive definition of “digital assets” as they can take many forms such as bank accounts, PayPal, Amazon, reward cards, eBay and National Lottery accounts. Other examples include professional photographers and access to digital photographs, the unpublished works of an author or even a monetised blog or website which could impact the value of an estate. If you do not keep a record of these then they could easily be missed by your executors and attorneys and lost altogether.
In many cases, you may not own what you think you do when using online services. This is because when signing up to certain services we blindly agree to terms and conditions, which means that we are restricted in our use of these digital assets. For example, the data held in our social media accounts may be owned by the service provider which may cause an executor difficulty gaining access after you die.
There are a few key action points you can easily follow, such as:
- Carry out a review of what assets and information you hold digitally in online accounts.
- Write down a list of logins and passwords for key accounts – do not store this digitally on a computer, a phone or in the cloud as it would be vulnerable to a potential security breach – and tell chosen executors of the existence of the list (but do not give them the list).
- Plan for social media accounts to be memorialised. Facebook gives you the option to decide what will happen to your account on death and Twitter also has a policy that allows photographs to be deleted.
- Make hard copies of photos with sentimental or monetary value (in the case of professional photographers) and any documents that may be required by either an executor or attorney. You can make digital backups, but remember that these files can be corrupted or lost.
- If you own a business, ensure that information is backed up and that any important information is written down – and not just stored in your head!
Dealing with digital assets can present challenges and we would always encourage you to handle your personal and financial affairs privately and securely. You should, however, also consider how realistically your attorneys (under a power of attorney) or executors (under your will) would be able to obtain an accurate idea of your estate or manage your data.
Online bank accounts are traditionally easier to locate due to bank cards but whether or not an attorney or executor would be able to continue to manage such accounts digitally will depend on the bank or building society’s terms and conditions of use. Most banks have specific departments to help deal with such situations.
You should also consider online payment accounts such as PayPal, which can often be located by looking at the bank statements linked to these accounts. Usually, such accounts do not have significant cash balances, but it would be wise for an attorney or executor to check to ensure they are not holding refunds and credits from recent transactions. Dealing with these accounts can be more difficult especially if you are not aware of the email address attached to the account.
We would all be guilty of assuming that we own our digital media accounts holding MP3s, films and ebook collections and therefore could be accessed by your attorney or executor on death. In the case of iTunes and Amazon Kindle, the position is usually that the individual has a limited licence to use the digital media rather than ownership meaning such collection would be non-transferrable. However, Apple’s customer service team have been known to transfer accounts following death despite the non-transferability rules. This should not be relied upon, as there would still be a risk that the content providers could suspend an account at any time and therefore access to the content would then be lost.
People increasingly store data such as photos in the cloud rather than on a physical device and again the right to access such accounts rests with the provider. Normally when the subscription fees cease or the owner dies the account is deleted. However, it is possible to grant access rights to others, so it would be wise to put steps in place now so that such accounts could be accessed after your death and any data downloaded or transferred to another account.
The law is likely to develop further in the area of virtual currencies otherwise known as cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are traded from a digital wallet stored either online or on a device such as a pc, mobile or external memory storage. These are relatively new to the scene but there are now outlets including restaurants, pubs and internet retailers that accept payment in bitcoin, and we are likely to see growth in the number of people using such services.
At RRL Wills we can assist in reviewing your digital assets in order to ensure that your wishes are properly covered in your will and an accompanying letter of wishes.
This publication has been prepared by RRL Wills Limited. It is to be treated as a general guide only and is not intended to be a comprehensive statement of the law or represent specific advice. No liability is accepted for the opinions it contains, or for any errors or omissions. All rights reserved.