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10 Steps to Protect Your Digital Assets

View profile for John Gillions
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In previous years gone by administering a person’s estate primarily involved making arrangements for their physical assets, such as property, jewellery, and cash in the bank or shares.  More recently, with our increasing reliance and day to day usage of the internet and virtual storage it has become necessary to cast the net wider when identifying and dealing with a person’s assets.

Online bank accounts, photos, correspondence, music and other digital content all need to be considered and dealt with on death. These may have considerable sentimental or monetary value which could be lost, and unlike a physical asset, digital assets can be notoriously difficult to locate and identify by your executors.

The law is still catching up with these online developments. Digital assets are usually accessible through online accounts set up via a company’s website e.g. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and Twitter. When creating an account the individual signs up to standard terms and conditions of the account which cannot be varied. Most terms and conditions acknowledge the intellectual property rights of the account holder but grant the website or software owner a worldwide royalty free licence over the contents. One big exception is iTunes where MP3 downloads are only licensed to the individual account holder, ultimate control is retained by Apple. So the music cannot be transferred or sold on.

Protect Your Digital Assets

The most common options offered in other terms and conditions are: –

  • Termination of the account after a period of inactivity.
  • Selecting a nominee who will be allowed access to the account following death.
  • Permission to access content on production of a Grant of Probate.
  • The memorialisation of social networking content for example for a brief period followed by deletion.

Some basic steps can be taken to protect these assets and to ensure that accounts are not overlooked by your executors: –

1. Identify your accounts and make a list of logins and passwords.

2. Ensure that you store the list securely and tell chosen Executors of the list (but don’t give the list to them).

3. Review how you want digital assets dealt with e.g. photos, emails and blogs.

4. Review the terms and conditions of any accounts. There may be specific requirements on death or long periods of inactivity.

5. Nominate someone, such as an Executor, with permission to access online accounts after death through a designated facility as set out by the account provider e.g. Google: Inactive Account Manager.

6. Be aware that an inactive account could lead to data being prematurely or permanently destroyed before the Executors can deal with it.

7. Give written instructions to the Executors regarding any memorialisation of social network accounts.

8. Print off or burn CDs of photos and music.

9. Retain copies of key documents on your computer or iPad not just online.

10. Include any specific instructions in your Will or Memorandum of Wishes and consider whether any additional powers are needed for the Executors especially for digital assets concerning valuable copyright.

Digital assets and their storage are relatively recent therefore there are still many unresolved issues surrounding what happens to them upon a person’s death.  Many people have not been aware that their music, photos or online accounts etc. constitute assets in their own right resulting in either their wishes having not been expressed or digital assets being unidentified altogether on death.

The overall message is therefore to be aware of your digital assets so that you can consider and plan for what you would like to happen to them in the event of your death.  Following the steps listed above should assist both you and your executors in ensuring your wishes are honoured.

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