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Digital Afterlife

View profile for Alistair MacFarlane
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Billions of us now use the internet and the numbers are increasing every day.  Why do so few people consider what happens to their assets when they die?

What are digital assets?

There are essentially three types of digital asset: -

Personal items such as emails, social media pages and photos
Financial assets which include online bank accounts and investments
Digital assets having a value in their own right.  These might range from a gaming character in a programme such as World of Warcraft or perhaps architect’s designs.

What is the problem?

You might think that the law would cover this either by Wills (for those who make them) or by the intestacy rules (for those who do not). 

There are three hurdles to overcome: access, valuation and location.

Access

Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) see their service as one lasting during a person’s lifetime.  Contracts with ISPs often provide for an account to be deleted if it remains inactive for a period of months.  One solution is to keep a list of all online accounts with passwords with your executors or next of kin.  We would not recommend this as an executor accessing your account with these details could be committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and this may also be in breach of the terms of the ISP.

Another possibility is to inform the ISP of your wishes e.g. that access should be passed to a particular person.  Google provide an Inactive Account Manager Service for this purpose but there are many other ISPs that do not provide such as service.

Sometimes this can cause great distress for a bereaved family such as that of Justin Ellsworth, a US Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2004.  Yahoo refused to allow his family to have unlimited access to his emails. 

The loss of emails is one matter but the loss of information about your online bank accounts and savings and investments is quite another.  Did you know that if your PayPal account becomes dormant it could eventually be transferred to the Treasury of Luxembourg !?

Valuation

A recent survey by the accountants, PWC, found that the value of our digital assets is £25 billion pounds.  Whilst some items such as family photos will have little or no commercial value, you may be a professional photographer in which case your digital portfolio may be very valuable.

At the other end of the scale, some digital assets come in the form of pure gaming characters.  Such “virtual” assets can be valued on exchanges such as Sony’s “Live Game Exchange”. 

Location

It may not always be clear where a digital asset is located.  This will be important if there is a dispute about the asset and therefore which jurisdiction will apply, that of the users home country, or the ISPs home country or perhaps elsewhere.

Conclusion

With the growing use of the internet, these difficulties are only set to multiply.  How can you prepare and protect yourself.  We recommend that you start by listing your digital property along with your other property on a personal asset log. Click here to download our sample document and come and speak to us about any problems you may have.