Increasingly, many of us conduct and manage a lot of day to day activities online
If this sounds strange to you, consider the total time you spend online doing and managing your personal and business matters:
In fact, there are very few areas of our lives that we don’t or can’t conduct online
Recent statistics show that at the end of December 2017 there were 4.1 billion worldwide internet users, and it is estimated that 70% of weekly activities are spent on the internet. As you will be aware, you can do most of your banking and shopping online.
What will happen to all your online accounts and other ‘digital assets’ when you die?
Have you given some thought to what would happen to your online presence, accounts and other digital assets when you pass on? An executor can deal with your assets in terms of your will, but what happens to your digital assets? There is no official definition of a digital asset, however case law links it to any information stored electronically. Digital assets are those which exist in a solely electronic and non-tangible manner such as email, online photos, and online accounts ranging from PayPal to Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube and the content posted on them. Most are protected by usernames, passwords, and security questions, which for obvious reasons are not widely shared, often not even with loved ones. There is generally an absence of legislation governing how digital assets should be dealt with on death. Until legislation is promulgated to deal with these types of assets, loved ones face a challenge especially in the event of an unexpected death in obtaining access to those passwords and the content they access. Also bear in mind, many people no longer receive paper bank statements, tax returns, or bills, so there may not even be a paper trail for the family to follow to determine what accounts may exist and at which institutions.
How do you value digital assets, and can they be transferred or sold?
Certain digital assets – as one example, crypto currencies such as Bitcoin – carry a monetary value, typically market-related (in terms of supply and demand). But, there is also often a sentimental value associated with digital assets, like online photo collections. Good steward value is the value that comes from having a roadmap of the digital assets that makes them easy to navigate, access and manage. Another consideration is whether digital assets can be transferred or sold to another individual. How often do you read the terms and conditions before registering for a new online account? You should, as some companies restrict transferability whilst others don’t.
You can ease the emotional and financial burden on your loved ones when you die
Without knowledge of specific access credentials, family members may face substantial issues when trying to access your online accounts. The reason for this is that an account user typically accepts a provider’s terms and conditions when creating an account. These terms usually prohibit the user from permitting anyone to access their account except for themselves. As such, many providers are in a tricky situation if your loved one tries to access or shut down an account, especially if they can’t provide the specific access credentials associated with the account.
Requirements to access or close a service vary
As practical examples, Facebook requires a copy of the deceased's death certificate and prevents unauthorised users from logging on, though they will typically honour requests from family or an executor to permanently close an account. Some other service providers’ requirements are a lot harder to comply with, as many don’t guarantee that they will grant access to the deceased's email account. In many cases, an individual must provide a name, address, email and a copy of a driver's license or ID, and a copy of the death certificate. LinkedIn requires a ‘verification of death’ form that includes the deceased's email address, LinkedIn profile URL and a death certificate. Twitter is probably the more reasonable (given the limited scope of what you can do on twitter) requiring only a name, contact information and relationship to the deceased, as well as a link to a public announcement as an objective verification of a death. For online accounts such as email and payment methods, and digital assets (like Bitcoin) the ability to obtain access may be critical to resolve a loved one’s affairs but may be much harder to do without having access and knowledge about where to even look for this. A will is a public document that expresses how your assets are distributed to your beneficiaries. In the absence of a proper legislative framework to regulate how digital assets should be dealt with on death, we advise you to ensure that your loved ones and executor are aware of your digital assets (particularly those that have a monetary value such as crypto currencies) by mentioning them in your will.
Practical steps you can take today to help your loved ones
Administering estates with digital assets is a relatively new concept which is further complicated by the lack of relevant legislation. To avoid unnecessary admin and the associated head and heart aches for your loved ones, below are some practical ways to help them. We suggest that you:
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