As recent statistics have shown, many of us find it difficult enough to engage in estate planning when it comes to our physical assets. According to YouGov research, around two thirds of adult Brits have not made a Will. And even for those who have, few consider the less tangible assets of life. But what happens to the digital lives we inhabit – and the assets we have there – when we pass away?
What counts as a digital asset?
In estate planning terms, property, possessions, cash, investments and bank accounts are easy enough to identify as assets that need to be included in a Will. But what of digital assets? Essentially, anything that is created online could be included in this definition – and it doesn’t necessarily need to be something of traditional ‘value,’ i.e. worth something to someone else. So, for example, cloud storage full of photos could be a digital asset, as much as an online bank account or social media profile. Domain names, gaming accounts, websites, email accounts and any code you have created also count. Digital assets have the potential to last much longer than real life assets. In fact, in theory they could simply go on forever. That is why it is so crucial that you include instructions on how they should be disposed of in your Will.
In this age of heightened awareness of the need for digital security, most of us have password protected our accounts. This is the safe and sensible thing to do but also needs to be taken into consideration in estate planning. If you die, do you want your relatives to be unable to shut your Facebook page down, for example? Although in most situations it is simply an inconvenience to have these accounts open, they are more vulnerable to hacking and that could cause problems. Imagine the pain for relatives if a hacker gained access to your social media account and started using it to post after your death. So, ensuring that you leave instructions about passwords is crucial.
How to deal with digital assets in estate planning
Firstly, make sure you keep a record of all your passwords but don’t do this in your Will – after you die your will becomes a document of public record so anyone will be able to access the logins. Instead, keep a record of this in a separate document, perhaps on a memory stick that you can bequeath to one of your relatives. Second, create an inventory of all your digital assets so that it is possible to get an overview of everything in one place – and update it regularly. Make this as detailed as possible – include absolutely every account, site, profile and collaboration even if you are not 100% sure whether it comes within the definition of a digital asset. As the law has proven slow to keep up with tech developments this is still something of a grey area, but being as clear and unambiguous as you can will help to avoid misunderstandings. Finally, bear in mind that you will leave all your digital footprint behind when you die – make sure that the right people have access to the right assets to ensure there is no unnecessary confusion, upset or shock.