Plan your digital afterlife for valuable online assets - Carole Tomlinson

Many of us do almost everything online these days, from banking and food shopping to virtual calls with friends and colleagues – and that leaves 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?

Carole Tomlinson is a Partner, Anderson Strathern

You may be surprised to know many digital assets we purchase are not actually owned by us and so cannot be passed over on death. For some digital assets, such as Kindle book collections, we only have a lifetime licence, meaning any rights 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, whether online or on a storage device, and can include: digital photos, gaming accounts, Bitcoin, online accounts and social media profiles.

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Apple has announced it 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 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. The administrator will be able to sign in through a ‘legacy contact Apple ID’ and view data stored in iCloud, Apple’s cloud service, which can be downloaded. They 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. 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 cannot log into the account, read messages or remove any friends.

Google allows users to appoint a ‘trusted contact’ through its ‘Inactive Account Manager’ service. If a user becomes inactive for a specified period, Google will notify the nominated trusted contact. The user can decide if the trusted contact should have the ability to download selected data contained in 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 deleted.

Twitter and Snapchat do 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 are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased.

While many providers do not offer pre-planning tools to address users’ wishes on death, Apple may be the driving force for others to follow. Until then, plan your digital afterlife by keeping a running inventory of accounts and passwords. Back up photographs and take legal advice if you have valuable online assets. If you don’t wish your family or executors to recover your information, you could document this informally.

It’s good planning to review your will, and to grant a power of attorney, as the problems surrounding access to your digital life also apply if you lose capacity.

Carole Tomlinson is a Partner, Anderson Strathern

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