From an inheritance and succession point of view, this poses an important question: what happens to our digital assets when we die?
Often when writing a will, people will consider any physical property they own as well as any investments and sums held in bank accounts. However, many fail to consider their digital assets – whether a collection of family photos stored on their phone, writings on a computer or assets held in a cryptocurrency account. A recent YouGov survey revealed that 52 per cent of people have left no instructions on how to access their digital accounts for when they die.
What are digital assets?
There is no legal definition of a “digital asset”, but it can be thought of as any personal property that is stored digitally, either online (i.e. in the cloud) or on a computer, smartphone, tablet or external hard drive. This includes photographs, videos, website domain names, blogs, social media, gaming or email accounts and cryptocurrencies.
An online-only bank account will quite obviously hold financial value, whereas digital versions of family photographs or videos often carry sentimental value. Some people would consider social media accounts such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to hold social value.
Digital assets may also carry intellectual value if they attract intellectual property protection, for example websites, documents or images. For “online influencers”, whose careers are entirely rooted in their digital presence, an Instagram account could hold financial, sentimental, social and intellectual value.
Access to photographs, videos and documents
While in the past, photos, videos and documents would be stored in boxes, most of these are now stored digitally, which makes them difficult to access for family members who do not know the relevant passwords for the devices or accounts in which they are held.
For example, most iPhone users will save their data on Apple’s cloud-based storage system, iCloud, which is password-protected to ensure data remains private and secure. Under Apple’s terms and conditions, all user accounts are non-transferable and rights to the content terminate on the user’s death, unless the law otherwise requires.
Some physical assets gifted to beneficiaries in a will also contain the gift of the digital assets held on the devices. For example, when the author JG Ballard died, he left a laptop containing two unpublished works to beneficiaries. The manuscripts were later published, creating royalties for beneficiaries.
However, not everything held digitally may be classed as an asset. Many personal online libraries such as iTunes and Amazon are held by licence only. This means the songs, films, eBooks and podcasts they contain are not owned by the service-users and cannot be transferred to others.
Websites, blogs and domain names
In order to keep access to a domain name, fees must be paid when they fall due. If that does not happen, the domain name may expire and be auctioned off for others to buy.
Special consideration must be given by those who own a business domain or website to ensure continuity of the business and to avoid financial loss resulting from lack of access to the business website.
Access to online accounts such as email or social media can also raise difficult issues. Different internet service providers will have their own terms and conditions that customers agree to in order to use their services. These should be checked to see what they say about the transfer of digital assets upon death – especially as they may not allow passwords to be shared.
In terms of social media, each platform has a different procedure for what happens to an account on the death of its owner. They may allow a page to be archived, to be managed by a “legacy” or “trusted” contact of the deceased, or simply to be deactivated.
While many online service providers have a system in place for when their users die, there is no consistent application across these platforms and some have no provisions in place to recover accounts. Therefore, it is important to plan based on the types of accounts and who should be able to access them.
Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin hold demonstrative financial value. However, they may not be as easy to locate and transfer on death as typical financial assets held in traditional investments. As cryptocurrencies are not centrally regulated, an individual’s value held in the currency is stored in their online “wallet” that only they can access through a series of codes.
If an individual does not remember how to access their account, there is no way to provide access by resetting a password like other online accounts. Similarly, if a user dies without leaving information regarding their access codes, it may be impossible to access the cryptocurrency. Therefore, provision must be made to pass on access to cryptowallets to avoid the loss of these assets on the death of the holder.
It is important for those thinking about their inheritance plans to consider the value and content of their digital estates. Planning what will happen to them on death will make it more likely that loved ones get the full value – whether financial, social, intellectual or sentimental.
Emma Read is a solicitor in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s private wealth and tax team.