As we live in a constantly connected world where we store and share a lot of personal data via email and social media accounts, digital estate planning, digital asset management and digital legacy are becoming increasingly important. Have you planned what will happen to your digital assets when you pass on?
What are digital assets?
Digital assets may be defined as assets that exist only as a numeric encoding expressed in binary form. They include e-mails, electronic documents, images, audio, software and account information. The term ‘digital estate’ then refers to data that can be inherited. Yet a recent survey suggests that almost 63% of people don’t know what will happen to their digital assets when they die.
This is astounding when you consider the potential economic value in many of these assets. For example, a professional photographer may store most of his/ her work in password-protected areas of his/her computer or in the cloud.
Our various accounts are packed with years of correspondence, writings, data and images. Our society has become so accustomed to conducting business online that, on average, each internet user has 26 different online accounts and uses roughly 10 different passwords every day.
We at Regan Solicitors recognise that digital assets have to be bequeathed to our nearest family and friends on our death.
The fact that we no longer possess physical copies of our correspondence, photographs and writings does not mean that we do not value them. The service providers which allow us to avail of this technology would be loath to suggest that a digital photograph is any less real or beautiful than a printed photograph. So why then should there be such a divergence in how our digital and ‘real’ property is treated on our death?
An Introduction To Digital Estate Planning
We all know we need a Will, but one key facet of 21st Century Estate planning that many people overlook is digital estate planning.
While Digital Legal Assets are no less important than the family silver, they may seem insignificant given the ease with which we can access them at any time on any device. But there have been several cases involving costly legal disputes over who owns and controls the property.
Simply put, you must take steps.
Email And Social Media Service Provider Policies
There is no consensus or regulation as to how digital technology companies treat a user account on the death of the owner.
Google recently launched its Inactive Account Manager service. It allows users to designate a particular ‘timeout period’ of inactivity, after which Google will attempt to contact the inactive user. If no response is received Google will treat the user’s Gmail messages, Blogger posts, contacts and YouTube accounts in the manner previously directed by the user.
Google also allows the next of kin to apply for access to a deceased user’s Gmail account, but the person would have to prove their own identity and supply a death certificate as well as proof of an email conversation between them and the deceased.
Windows Live Hotmail has a policy of deleting email accounts if they are not logged into for 270 days. If you die, your next of kin would be able to access your account within that period by proving their identity and supplying a death certificate.
Unlike Google and Microsoft, Yahoo’s policy is that they will not grant next of kin access to deceased users’ accounts unless there is a court order from a judge. While the deceased user’s next of kin, however, can ask for the account to be closed, Yahoo will not give them access to it.
Twitter’s policy is also very restrictive, requiring specific documents and information in order for an account to be shut down. There is no policy for allowing bereaved family members to access it.
Facebook now allows users much more freedom over what will continue to be displayed on their page after death.
As well as offering a feature that allows friends and family members to “memorialise” the profiles of deceased users, Facebook now has a setting to allow you to set your account so that it is permanently deleted when you die. In particular, it also allows users to name a “legacy contact”; someone who may take ownership of the account after death, in a manner akin to naming somebody a trustee of your living trust.
The lack of cohesiveness between online account ‘deceased user’ policies, with the complexities of legal ownership of the content of accounts means that users need to be proactive with digital estate planning. They need to make plans to have their digital assets disposed of according to their wishes.
Contact Regan Solicitors For Further Advice On Digital Estate Planning
The best approach for now to take is to treat your digital assets as you would your real assets. This means including it in your Estate planning. Show a clear intention as to where, what and how your data should be used and by whom. Or simply – “on my death, all social media accounts in my name(s) should be deleted…”, a task which Regan Solicitors can assist you with.
If you have questions about any of the information above or require help with digital estate planning or estate planning in general, please contact us on 01 6874100 or fill out our contact form and we will be in touch shortly.