Downloads, Data and Death

Most people think about what will happen to their visible assets, such as their house or antiques, on their death and prepare a Will leaving these assets to the desired beneficiary.  Less people consider what will happen to their digital assets, and therefore do not adequately prepare for the passing of such assets on their death. 

Digital assets include: 

  • Assets with monetary value - these include electronic music, books, films and apps together with online bank accounts and money held on gambling and gaming websites;
  • Assets with sentimental value - these include digitally stored photographs and videos, emails, social media sites, and information collated on ancestry websites; and
  • Business assets - these include emails, websites, accounts, stockists, documents and files stored online, business plans, photographs, and domain and brand names.

Failing to plan ahead can leave an executor with two key problems.  One of the key roles of an executor is to ascertain what assets and liabilities the deceased owned at the time of death.  The executors need this information to be able to calculate the inheritance tax due on the Estate and distribute the assets in accordance with the deceased's Will.  Unless the deceased leaves some indication of the digital assets owned, the executors will have to try to discover what digital assets form part of the Estate.  This could be extremely difficult due to the wide range of digital assets available.

Once the executors have overcome the hurdle of identifying the assets, they will then need to access the accounts and deal with them in accordance with the deceased's wishes.  Unless the deceased has spoken to the executors and informed them of his passwords and wishes, this will be almost impossible.  Online companies each have their own rules and formalities for allowing executors access to their accounts, and these are often cumbersome.

There are a number of options to help your executors and ensure that all your digital assets are located following your death.  Firstly you can create a list of digital assets and associated passwords, either in a letter or on a storage device, and a list of instructions for your executors of how you would like your digital assets to be administered.  This information should always be stored in a safe place and should ideally be placed in a sealed envelope with your Will.  The Will itself should not include details of any digital assets or passwords, as Wills usually become a public document following your death.

This option, however, does require some time and effort.  The list will need to be updated regularly, for example on a yearly basis, to ensure that any new digital assets are included and to ensure any password changes are recorded. 

Alternatively, you could use a digital legacy site.  Digital legacy sites vary in their format, but most allow you to store information such as passwords and instructions on their site for an annual fee or lump sum payment.  On production of a death certificate, they will allow your nominated guardian to access your information and instructions.  Some sites will also delete information following your death which you do not want your family to see.  There is however a risk that the company may not exist at the time of your death, or that the security of the site may be compromised.

Both of these options are not ideal and each has its own disadvantages.  However, each option ensures that on your death your digital assets can be located by your executors and distributed to your family and friends in accordance with your wishes.

Posted on: 25/04/2013

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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