In today’s digital world we all have an increasing number of digital assets. From social media accounts, domain names, photos and media libraries online, digital music, ebooks and mail accounts to name but a few. Increasingly some accounts such as share dealing may only exist online.
The issue with digital assets is that when someone passes away unless there has been pre-planning access to these digital assets can be locked or lost. It will be down to the executors of the estate or family members to try to get access. This can be difficult if there is no clear authority to access the accounts, especially if they are accounts that are only available online. This can result in accounts either being frozen or access completely denied. This can cause immense difficulties if, for example you want to be able to download photos or videos from a site.
Whilst knowledge of passwords can be useful, sometimes it does not give the necessary authority for access nor for their distribution,
One’s digital assets should not only be recorded but it should be possible to ensure that one’s executors or loved ones have access. Whilst a will could be used to provide information about digital assets it is not advisable to include any passwords in a will as once these get published such information becomes available to anyone.
It is essential that any email accounts for the deceased are kept alive as long as possible. If the 'forgot user name' or 'forgot password' login feature is used to recover such information it will only get sent to the registered email address. So don’t be in too much of a hurry to close accounts down as you may need this information to recover access credentials. But you should still access them regularly as some accounts get automatically deactivated if they appear not to be used.
Details of how to access mobile phones is very important especially as these can be used for authentication. For example a text message with a code is increasingly used to validate or recover account details. Also some accounts, such as share dealing may only exist in an app on the phone and requires a PIN to trade shares or transfer funds. So knowledge of PIN numbers for access are very important.
User Name and Password Keepers
There are some online services that offer ways to protect and manage your digital assets. There are also software programs such as Keepass or 1password which enable user names, passwords, PIN numbers etc., to be stored for easy access. Keepass is a free program where the information is kept within an encrypted program which is stored on your pc or on a smart device. Keepass has an app so can be used on a smart device. 1password is an online paid for service. This can only be unlocked using a master password. One technique is to keep the master password with your will together with details where the encrypted file can be found (which could be for example, with a lawyer’s safekeeping service). It is essential that the password keeper file and details of its location is always kept up to date as we all change user names and passwords. Often a provider will force these every few months and demand that these meet specific criteria on terms of password length, including capital letters and number or special characters.
You could also use an encrypted word or excel file updating the password every time you change the user name or password. You can then decide either to give the master password to trusted person(s) or to your lawyer with instructions to make it available to a named person only in the event of your death.
Accounts with Financial Value
Some digital assets, for example online bank accounts, gambling sites etc., can be dealt with in the same way as a traditional assets
However the situation with regard to items that have been paid for can be different. Apple takes the view that music tracks, books etc., belong only to the deceased person and therefore these cannot pass to beneficiaries. Their reasoning is due to the fact that such items are licensed to the user rather than being sold. The license is personal and consequently that right dies with the person. The same would apply to movies, apps and similar. Not really satisfactory. But is there an obligation to tell them anyway?
We’re storing ever more information online so it pays to know what happens to your online accounts when you die. Much of our digital assets has sentimental value. Emails, photographs and documents stored in the cloud. The person’s presence on social media sites. Text messages between family members or photos on phones. Some of this information can have significant financial value such as online share accounts. Google in particular might have a lot of financial or personal information such as CV’s. You might want to stop posts onto your Facebook wall but without knowing credentials how can you do it? Leaving digital assets for others to inherit can be fraught with difficulties.
Facebook and Instagram
They allow next of kin to request account deletion or allow them to memorialize a loved one’s account. A legacy contact can be assigned and Facebook lets that person act as the administrator of a loved one's page in the event of their death. It enables them to act as an administrator for the page, however it does not allow access to private messages or posting under the deceased's name.
Facebook has an established policy in the UK that allows the executor of a will to request that an account is deleted or ‘memorialised’. In the memorialised state, sensitive information such as status updates and contact information is removed from the profile, while privacy settings on the account are changed so that only confirmed, existing friends can see the profile or locate it in Facebook’s internal search engine. The wall remains so friends and family – who are already friends with the profile – can leave posts in remembrance. When memorialised, no one can log in to the profile
In the US Facebook is trialing a feature that allows users to select what happens to their account after their death. (Facebook Privacy Basics)
For deletion or memorialisation of an account proof of death is required. It can only be requested by someone who can prove that they have the authority to act on behalf of the deceased.
Even if the account is deleted Facebook maintains an archive of every account which contains a copy of everything that has ever been uploaded to it. The account holder is able to download this archive. So the user should download this information whilst they are alive if they want to make it available to others. See Facebook account information here
With Twitter, immediate family members on providing proof of death can request their loved one’s account be deactivated. The only other alternative is to leave the account as is. But it won't allow that person access to your account, and it retains all the information. If provision was made in a will for access to be given to Facebook or Twitter accounts. Both organisations will currently ignore such provision. See Twitter account information here.
Google may be the most important account to access after a loved-one dies by virtue of the amount of information that it holds from email (Gmail), photo hosting (Picasa), document hosting (Google Drive) and social networking (Google Plus). Google deals with each case individually. There is no simple way of deactivating an account, and Google retains all the data.
There are no hard-and-fast rules. Each case is taken on merit. There might be opportunity for an authorised person to gain access to the account holder’s online assets. Google offers an Inactive Account Manager service by which an account holder can opt to have a trusted friend or family member sent an email in the event of their account being inactive for a certain time. The mail contains a link from which particular types of content, as defined by the account holder, can be downloaded.
Any expectation that your online property will become available to your family, or other beneficiary, after your death is misplaced unless you take precautions beforehand. It is unlikely that you would want to avoid any possibility of access to your online accounts whilst you are still alive. See Google account information here.
Dealing with a deceased’s estate can be a lengthy process. Handling a loved one’s online property might not be addressed for some considerable time after their death. So if you do manage to get access bear in mind that such access could be limited or terminated so get the data you need as soon as you can. It might also get deleted because of inactivity on the account so ensure that you deal with digital assets as soon as you can.
The legal situation can be complicated as digital assets tend to be stored on servers often shared and these could be based in different countries. Which country has legal jurisdiction can therefore be complicated. Many providers have not yet satisfactorily addressed this in their terms and conditions of use. There is no consistency or uniformity yet in this area.