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What you need to know: Death and your digital assets

Over 52% of the UK population, according to a recent YouGov survey, have left no arrangements for anyone to access their online accounts upon their death.

In a paperless society where we no longer receive hard copies, in many cases, no one apart from the deceased even knows these digital assets exist such as:

  • Bank & Financial Account Records
  • Photos, Music and Films
  • Social Media and email Accounts.

It’s extremely important to make sure your Executor will be able to access, transfer or close down everything you own online…

What are digital assets and why should we be bothered about them after we have died? A digital asset is anything that you own or have rights to that exists online or on hard storage devices. This includes: bank accounts; accounts with PayPal and Ebay; blogs; media stores and players eg iTunes; online gaming accounts eg PlayStation and XBox Live; and email and social media accounts. Digital assets with financial value, such as online bank accounts, PayPal and online shopping accounts can form part of a deceased’s estate and be passed on to his beneficiaries. Pictures and information on social media such as Facebook can be withdrawn from the internet and remembered in another form. Leaving digital assets unattended to after death can have adverse consequences. Financial arrangements, such as subscriptions and memberships, can be difficult to cancel or close down. And social media can be used by hackers to spread spam messages and generate false content, which could be upsetting to the deceased’s family.

I’ll just leave details of my passwords with my Executors. That’ll sort it, won’t it? Not necessarily. Digital assets are not automatically owned. Some assets are simply licences to use the asset. For example, with online music files, a person does not buy the song itself but instead the right to download, store and use the song. Licences are specific to an individual, non-transferable and terminate on death. As such, a music collection obtained via an iTunes account, for example, would not form part of the deceased’s estate and could not be passed on to his beneficiaries. For online bank accounts and other digital assets, even when the executor has the password to that account, there is a debate about whether he has the legal right to access it. A service provider’s terms and conditions often state that the service is personal to the individual and prohibits login and password information being provided to anyone else, including executors. By accessing the deceased’s account, an executor could unwittingly be breaking the law.

So what do I do? The Law Society Digital Assets Working Group recommends that we make an inventory containing our online assets, social media accounts, logins and passwords, and to keep it updated. A hard copy can be stored with (but separate to) your Will. For photographs and documents that are stored digitally you could download and back these up to an external hard drive. The law on digital assets has not progressed in line with the growth of its use. It is still a developing area of law and as such there is no definite answer as to how your digital assets will be dealt with on your death. As such, check the terms and conditions of the service provider for each online account to see if it specifies what will happen to your account on death, and whether you actually own the assets and if you can pass them onto your beneficiaries. If a service provider has the option to memorialise your account, ensure that your executors know your wishes and any particular message that you would like to leave to friends or followers.If intellectual property rights are attached to the digital asset, consider a specific legacy clause in your Will, and if necessary, appoint specialist executors to administer these assets.

If you have any questions about what will happen to your digital assets or those of a loved one, our Wills & Probate Team are happy to help you, click here to send us a message or ring us on 01623 468 468.

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