Digital afterlife

Most people, when making their Wills, do not give digital assets any thought. However, the majority of people in the UK own some sort of digital asset, be it an online bank account, photographs stored online, an email account, or an account with a social networking site, to name but a few.

We all know the importance of keeping passwords safe and are reminded constantly not to write our passwords down to avoid anyone accessing our accounts. Sometimes we can have trouble remembering our own passwords, having to regularly update them and different sites requiring passwords with a minimum number of letters or digits. In this case, we may not have a generic password for every account.

Have you thought about what will happen to these assets upon your death? Most people assume their executors can access the assets and distribute them as per their will, however this is not always the case.

 

What are digital assets?

There are three main forms of digital assets:

1. Personal and sentimental: these are items which usually can be accessed simply by entering your computer. They comprise of items such as diaries, videos, photographs, letters – these are all items we would normally want to pass on to our relatives. Due to the introduction of digital cameras, fewer people tend to print their photographs and the majority of people store them on their computers, or on social networking sites; this could lead to family members not even knowing that these photographs exist.

One such site allows storage and postage of photographs online.

Although it is free to sign up, there is a subscription cost to pay, and as soon as this is stopped, the account may be closed, and the photographs deleted. Executors may want to ensure the subscription is still paid until the photographs have been added to a hard drive and will need to think about where the subscription fee is paid from if the deceased’s bank account is frozen.

2. Digital assets with financial information: Many people manage their bank accounts online nowadays. This is not an immediate concern as the accounts can usually be accessed in person as well. However, some accounts are only online accounts and therefore it may be difficult for executors to be aware of their existence until a statement arrives through the post which could be some months after a person’s death.

3. Digital assets which are valuable, or which may accrue value in the future: this could include assets used in relation to a business or videos. Many people also have online music, gaming or gambling accounts that may have funds in them. PayPal accounts may also hold funds, although the procedure for accessing these and retrieving the funds are usually the same as the normal procedure for accessing bank accounts of the deceased.

 

How to keep track of our digital assets?

One of the simplest ways of preparing a digital legacy would be to keep a record of our digital life so that

executors and beneficiaries know what assets there are and where they are held. Photographs can be held on a USB stick so they can be accessed by other parties. The problem is that if passwords are written down, they can be found by other people during your lifetime, and they may change between when they are written down and the date of death.

There are providers with online storage solutions that can hold passwords for each person, however these again may have security issues.

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this problem and every individual will need to tackle this issue as they deem appropriate.

 

What additional problems are there?

With so many assets stored online, how will executors know that they have successfully traced all of the assets? Some accounts are now only held online so executors may not be aware of the existence of the account until a statement arrives in the post at a later date. Provided any property is still occupied or the post is being forwarded, the accounts will be found eventually. This, however, may have an impact on the amount of any Inheritance Tax due.

Another issue that can arise, is who the digital assets belong to. If there is a standard chattels clause in the Will, certain assets may not be included in this, and therefore a clause may need to be inserted to cover specific digital assets. Certain digital assets, such as iTunes accounts, are however personal to the account holder and ownership cannot currently be transferred and therefore the account terminates on death.

The final problem with online assets is valuing them. Photographs personal to the deceased are unlikely to be of any value, but if the deceased is an author, for example, the value of their works will need to be ascertained prior to the Inheritance Tax account being submitted.

 

Summary

There are various options when it comes to digital assets, and every individual will have their own preferred method of keeping track of them. However you decide to store your assets, and however you want them distributed on your death, it is important to remember they may not be specifically included within the terms of your Will, and thought should be given as to who you want them to pass to, how they can be accessed upon your death, and who should be able to access them.

 

These notes are not exhaustive and are meant as a basis for discussion with your legal adviser. If clients wish to discuss any of the above, please contact our Private Client Team 020 8940 4051 who will be pleased to help you

 

IMPORTANT: this information is intended to be a general statement of the law. No action should be taken in reliance on it without seeking specific legal advice.

Our Private Client team

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