Trusts, Wills & Estates

Dying in a digital age: how to preserve your virtual assets

Even 20 years ago the extent to which our lives, both social and financial, would today be played out on the internet would come as a surprise to many of us. There can now be very few people under the age of 50 who do not conduct at least part of their lives online or have an online account. In this article we look at how these assets are dealt with when we are no longer here or have lost capacity.

Online bank accounts and virtual assets

One of the duties of the personal representatives (PRs) of a deceased person’s estate is to collect in the assets in the estate, which starts with identifying exactly what is owned at the time of death. Similar responsibilities fall to the Attorneys or Deputies of those who no longer have capacity.

The move towards online bank accounts, the recent proliferation of financial institutions and the fact that some people now switch their cash savings frequently in order to gain the best rates, may make it problematic for PRs to establish exactly which assets of this kind are owned, and potentially accounts could be missed. Details of these assets may be stored on a laptop but this is of little help to a PR who does not know the password and cannot access the accounts.

Possible solutions

As with everything else digital tools are available to help with this problem. Online companies such as Legacy Locker and Asset Lock or the optimistically entitled ‘If I Die’ app enable account holders’ account details and passwords to be stored in a secure, encrypted way.

However, this solution requires the account holder to put his faith in a company which was probably previously unknown to him and to deposit valuable information with a third party when there is no guarantee that the third party might still be trading at the time the information is required.

Perhaps the solution to this digital problem in fact lies in an old fashioned manuscript, your Will. This could appoint separate executors to deal with your digital estate and could provide the key to online assets, perhaps by referring to a separate memorandum to be kept with your Will in similar secure storage giving details of the assets and relevant access information. As a Will becomes a public document once admitted to probate, the use of a memorandum ensures that these details are kept private.

It would be important to keep such a list up-to-date and a useful back-up tool might be the printing and retention of hard copy statements. The Will also needs to be kept up to date to ensure that the definition of ‘Digital Estate’ keeps pace with technology. Once the executors are aware of the accounts then the usual probate procedures can take place to realise them.

Succession to virtual property

If your Will leaves all your property to a specified beneficiary does that include virtual assets? It depends is the answer, as whether ownership can be passed on death is determined by the individual terms and conditions of the asset in question.

For example, both iTunes and Kindle provide that the licence to use the contents is personal to the account holder and not capable of transmission to another person. By comparison the Nectar points scheme provides that points can be transferred on death.

The position is complicated by the fact that these assets may be governed by the law of jurisdictions outside of the UK.

Again adequate record keeping is important so that the executors know which assets to investigate. It might also be good planning for older people to transfer some assets while they can to more easily accessible accounts. For example the balance on a Paypal account would be easier to deal with if it were kept to a minimum with regular transfers to a UK based account.

Our digital “soul”

And finally what happens to all those e-mails, tweets and status updates?

Whilst copyright in these items lies with the writer, the problem is again one of access. E-mail providers differ in their policies with Google seeming to lead the way in this area with the introduction of Inactive Account Manager which enables users to decide either that all their data should be deleted after a certain period of inactivity, or that notification of inactivity should be given to a person nominated by the user who will be able to download all data authorised by the user. This seems a clear policy which hopefully others might follow in the future.

In the interim, regular back up of data that you wish to keep would be advisable, together with the deletion of any data trails that you do not wish to leave behind!

So what should you be doing now?

  • Give some thought to your digital estate
  • Keep records (possibly with your Will)
  • Make sure that all records are up-to-date.
  • Use available tools such as Google’s Inactive Account Manager; and
  • Remember that after you have gone your online life will live on!