Planning your digital afterlife

What happens to your digital assets when you die?

Our lives in regards to who we are, what we do and what we own are increasingly managed digitally.

Any assets managed digitally, i.e. accessed or held online, are referred to as digital assets. These can range from online gaming accounts, to photos, digital music, bank accounts, domain names, cloud storage etc, etc.

Should you die the duties of your executors in relation to digital assets, as with any other assets, are to identify them and arrange transfer to beneficiaries or sell them. However;

  • How do the executors know the assets exist?
  • Are the assets worth anything?
  • Can the executors access the accounts?

As your Will is usually stored securely you could incorporate details, including passwords and usernames, within it. However this is not very practical; every time you change something you would need to change your Will.

The key is that people know the assets exist. A simple list stored with other important documents will at least tell your executors what you’ve got and where to find it.

But are these assets worth anything?

It has always been common for people to leave books, CDs, vinyl collections etc to someone in their Will but what about online versions? Buy music from iTunes and you don’t own it; you simply have a perpetual licence to play the music. The licence is personal and not transferrable. In effect you are just renting it. Similarly digital book providers, such as Kindle, prevent a purchaser from passing on e-books or sharing passwords.

By contrast online games may have a value especially where a lot of time has been spent accumulating a character’s skills, weapons, money etc. Websites such as run auctions of gaming accounts allowing you to sell on these characters.

However digital assets are of no value if nobody knows they exist. Frequently forgotten digital assets include loyalty programmes such as air miles which CAN often be transferred.

But how do my executors access the accounts?

The law in this area has been slow to catch up with technology. Currently accessing the deceased accounts with their username and password may mean the executor is committing fraud!

Many companies providing online services have created their own polices for dealing with deceased accounts such as Google’s ‘inactive account manager’. There are also online password storage facilities, like Password Box, with legacy features but these still don’t resolve the issue of whether or not your executors can access your accounts. The problem is there’s no set approach.

In a bid to resolve this issue STEP has created a Working Group to look at access, control and ownership of digital assets when a user dies or is incapacitated. The intention of the group is to create a protocol that can be adopted by all online providers. The challenge will be how, when this is an international market, to create one approach that can be adopted globally.

This is an increasingly important issue with, as yet, no definitive outcomes. We will keep you updated as things develop.