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How to protect your digital assets in your Will

View profile for Sue Nicholson
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The value of our online lives is worth billions of pounds but many of these assets may never be passed on, as people are failing to record their digital worth.  Sue Nicholson, Private Client Lawyer, here reviews how you can protect your digital assets for the future generations, and why this is becoming more important as we move to a more online world.

In research undertaken by accountants PWC, the value of our digital assets was estimated at £25billion, yet in a YouGov poll over half of those surveyed admitted nobody would be able to access such assets after their deaths, as they had not made any arrangements to deal with what would happen.   “This research highlights the lack of awareness around how people can, and should, protect confidential information and pass on digital assets, whether that is when they are making a Will and appointing executors, or when making a Lasting Power of Attorney and appointing appropriate attorneys during a period of ill health or other incapacity,” begins Sue.  

What are my digital assets?

Digital assets include all content, accounts and files created and stored in a digital form, whether online, in the cloud, or on a computer or smartphone. These assets may have great financial or sentimental value.  Obvious examples of assets with a tangible financial value would be bank, building society or other types of investment accounts, but could also include gambling accounts, cryptocurrency accounts and internet payment accounts like PayPal. 

“Areas that do not carry any obvious financial worth should also be considered, such as social media accounts, personal photographs and other personal records and correspondence,” continues Sue.  “Within these areas there may be some that have a potential value, such as domain names, blogs, or affiliate accounts that generate advertising revenue.”

As the Yougov research highlighted, a common problem associated with digital assets is that it is not always clear who owns digital content after death.  Often the reason for this is that users found the detailed terms & conditions too difficult to understand or so long-winded that they did not read them.  Some digital assets may be only a licence to use services, such as online music and media supplied through Apple’s iTunes for example.  This sort of licence is personal to the individual and cannot be transferred to another person. 

Sue continues, “Physical assets are relatively easy to identify, but if you don’t provide any record of assets held online, it’s quite possible they would be overlooked. The other problem is where access is blocked, which may be because executors don’t have the log on information or because they don’t have authority to access the account.” 

Some accounts will not allow access by a third party, even if they are authorised to do so by the account holder, and in this case, it would be unlawful if executors access the account using the account holder’s log-in information.  

This sort of restriction may be a problem also for attorneys acting under a power of attorney, whether for a specific purpose or more generally, under a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) for financial affairs.  An LPA, which allows an individual to appoint one or more people to act as their 'attorneys' to help in the management of their affairs, is common among the elderly or those who are suffering long term illness, although they are increasingly put in place by younger people who may need to enable partners or others to act on their behalf while they are away, for example when travelling for business. 

Protecting your digital assets

There are certain steps that you should take when considering how to take your digital assets into account when planning for the future:

  • Make a full listing of all digital assets, including where they are stored; keep the listing updated regularly and store it securely.  This can be alongside your Will.    
  • Make a record of all usernames and passwords, together with the email address associated with the account, in case it is needed to reset a password, and store this separately and securely from the full listing.   There are also software options for secure storage of account details and passwords.
  • Never include any personal log-on information or account information within your Will itself, as it becomes a public document once the Courts issue a Grant of Probate to executors.  Similarly, no such information should be included in a Lasting Power of Attorney as the document must be shared with institutions and companies when attorneys request authority. 
  • Assets that have only sentimental value, such as photographs, can be gifted within your will as personal chattels, to ensure they do not get overlooked.   
  • For all online assets, check the small print and find out what happens to the account on death and then leave guidance to your executors, including whether you wish any particular accounts to be deleted or held as memorials.  
  • Give specific authority to your executors to access and manage all your digital assets.  This should be in writing and can be included within your Will or made in a separate document that is signed and witnessed. 

Sue concludes, “By coming to a solicitor when drawing up your Will or LPA, you can be assured that you are considering every option, including your digital assets.  As we continue to move more of our day to day life to online channels, it is just as important to consider these areas as your physical possessions, as your loved ones will struggle after your death if you have not many the proper provisions.”

To discuss with Sue or a member of the Private Client team how you can update your Will to include digital assets, you can call 01329 222075 or email privateclientenquiry@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.