Wills and the Web: What happens to Online Assets?
22.5 million households now have access to the internet across Britain. It would not be a stretch to say that as many depend on the internet in their everyday lives. As a result, it could be said that we live our lives as much online as elsewhere – whether that is buying groceries or stocks and shares.
Although it may not be the first thing one considers when using google or yahoo, it is important to consider how we ensure any assets held electronically are given to those chosen to inherit them. Equally important is an understanding of how any online financial assets are to be dealt with by the executors of a deceased’s estate.
It may not be a particularly hot topic in the maelstrom of online developments but it is increasingly becoming an unavoidable reality for those who administer someone’s estate or indeed someone who has a power of attorney over an individual.
The Value of Online Assets
There are various online arrangements which can possess significant sentimental value and personal information:
- Data and information stored electronically on hardware or via the cloud
- Online accounts such as social media and email
Beyond this there are online assets which could possess a significant monetary value:
- Web sites or blogs that generate revenue
- Artwork, music, eBooks or any digital intellectual property that generates revenues
- Accounts used to manage money such as PayPal or online bank accounts
- Intellectual property, eg copyrighted material, domain names, trademarks, computer code.
For a private client lawyer, probably the most obvious digital asset that most of us have is an online bank account, through which we carry out internet banking. Such accounts are usually easily traceable by attorneys or executors through bank cards and cheque books, and are dealt with on incapacity or death by the same means as any traditional account. Whether or not attorneys and executors will be able to continue to manage such accounts digitally depends on the terms and conditions of the bank or building society. However, most banks have specific departments to deal with bereavements and powers of attorney.
Another form of financial accounts could be online payment mechanisms – such as PayPal and Amazon. Usually, this can be established from statements from the more traditional bank accounts which are linked to these online accounts. Though such accounts may not have cash balances, it is recommended that executors make due enquiries.
It is even more important to consider this when an individual runs a business through the internet. An executor or attorney will have to consider the registration of domain names and other relevant intellectual property matters to whoever inherits it.
It is concerning that many of the digital assets we have either purchased or stored on the internet are not actually owned by us. On a sentimental level, many of our digital photographs are now only stored online. The right to access such accounts is again subject to the specific terms of the relevant provider.
Itunes accounts and Kindle book collections only have what is called a lifetime license: in other words, any rights to them are not transferable after death. However, you are usually able to grant access rights to another, so it is worth giving a family member access to your account and your photographs if an individual wants to make provision for them in case of death or incapacity.
Social media and internet accounts
Beyond these more tangible assets, many people have built successful businesses and brands through their social media account – and thus they could possess potentially important monetary value. Depending on the email or social media group, each will have a different procedure for obtaining information within an account, running it or closing it. Generally, proof of death is required by the executor along with their relationship to the deceased user.
Google have recently changed their policy to allow an individual to entrust a ‘trsuted contact’ which enables an individual to opt into Google’s ‘Inactive Account Manager’ servise. This allows Google to monitor the user’s account activity and if the account becomes inactive for a certain period of time, they will notify the trusted contact. If an individual opts in this would allow your executor or attorney as trusted contact, to download data contained within your account and they will receive an email from Google with a list of the data you have chosen to share with them and a link they can follow to download the data – across both YouTube and Google platforms.
Facebook can give executors two options: either to delete the deceased’s profile or create a memorial page. If memorialized, the deceased’s personal information will be removed, and no one can log on the account; however, the user’s wall will remain and existing friends and family can leave messages.
Instagram, an increasingly prominent and lucrative platform, are yet to introduce a similar legacy policy. They will close the account without allowing the family of the deceased to access an archive of the user’s images. In that case, it is recommended that you keep a backup of images uploaded to Instagram either electronically or on a pen drive or CD.
Good Planning in an Era of Constant Change
Undoubtedly, the law in this area has failed to keep up with the developments of the internet – and to some extent this is inevitable. Perhaps the courts and lawmakers will take some steps to address this.
In the meantime, it is strongly advisable that a person for a person in the process of writing his or her will that a thorough record is kept of the various accounts and the passwords which protect them. If there is a significant value to these online assets (i.e photos, videos, writing etc), it is essential that a person seeks legal advice to allow them to plan accordingly.
If someone has already written their will, it is equally important to review it to take these factors into account.