Many of us do almost everything online these days, from banking and food shopping to virtual calls with our friends and colleagues. We are increasingly living our lives online and leaving behind a digital footprint. This raises questions about what happens to any assets held electronically when we pass away and how are they transferred to those chosen to inherit them?
You may be surprised to know that many of the digital assets we purchase are not actually owned by us and so cannot be passed over on our death. For some digital assets, such as Kindle book collections, we actually only have a lifetime licence which means any rights we have to them terminate on death and are not transferable.
There is no universal legislative definition of a digital asset. Digital assets can be understood to be any information that exists in digital form and this can be online or on a storage device. Digital assets include, but are not exclusive to: digital photos, gaming accounts, Bitcoin, online accounts and social media profiles.
Apple has recently announced at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference they will be offering a digital legacy service for user accounts. With over 1.5 billion Apple devices in the world, this is a huge development for the future of legacy planning. It is hoped the service will reduce the number of families taking service providers, like Apple and Facebook, to court to gain access to a deceased family member’s account.
The service will allow users to give access to a nominated person, the administrator, or choose to have their account deleted when they pass away. This will allow the administrator to sign in through a ‘legacy contact Apple ID’ and view data stored in iCloud, Apple’s cloud service, which can be downloaded. The administrator will not have access to payment information including stored payment cards or logins on a user’s Keychain.
Apple is not the first provider to have considered this concept. Facebook gives families two options: delete the profile or set up a memorial page. If it is memorialised and the user has nominated a legacy contact, that person will be able to make decisions about the account on death. The legacy contact does not have access to log into the account, read messages or remove any friends.
Google allows users to appoint a ‘trusted contact’ through their ‘Inactive Account Manager’ service. If a user becomes inactive for a specified period of time, Google will notify the nominated trusted contact. The user can decide if the trusted contact should have the ability to download selected data contained within the user’s account.
Service providers like Instagram and LinkedIn have policies which allow family members or friends of the account holder to request the account to be memorialised or to delete the account.
Twitter and Snapchat does not allow users to nominate a trusted contact or decide what should happen to their account on death or incapacity. Instead, they will deactivate a deceased user’s account and they are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased.
While many providers do not currently offer pre-planning tools to address a user’s wishes upon death, Apple may be the driving force for other providers to follow. Until then, plan your digital afterlife by keeping a running inventory of your accounts and passwords. Back up your photographs and take legal advice if you have particularly valuable online assets. If you do not wish your family or executors to recover your information, this wish could be documented in an informal writing.
It’s good planning to review your will, and to grant a power of attorney as the problems surrounding access to your digital life are not confined to death but also apply if you lose capacity.
Our private client team offers a full portfolio of succession planning, wealth management, wills, trusts, family office, adult incapacity and private property advice tailored to meet individual needs.
This article was co-written by our trainee Gillian Grant. If you would like to contact Gillian email her on email@example.com.