The value of our online lives is becoming immeasurable, yet not many people are recording or protecting their digital assets just like their physical ones.
Whether the financial value of investments or the emotional value of family photos, if there is no arrangement in place to hand on passwords or accounts, or give authority for access, there is the chance of losing assets forever when someone dies.
Many imagine that securing content in the cloud is a safer option than a printed photograph album, but recent news that Google has revised its storage policies, allowing the online giant to delete data when it has not been accessed in the previous two years, has proven that even digital assets aren't fully safe.
Similarly, a review of dormant accounts by HSBC found the bank had put £1.5bn of customers’ cash out of reach in frozen accounts, after just 12 months of inactivity for current accounts, and 24 months for savings. Even when accounts were reactivated, the bank was re-freezing after just four weeks without regular use. Around a third of the dormant accounts were held by savers aged over 65, with the report highlighting the risk for elderly customers who may have lost track of their account or forgotten the details.
Such problems are likely to be compounded when someone has died without taking steps to secure their digital assets and provide the necessary information to give authority and access. A recent case involved a widow's fight to win access to her late husband’s Apple iCloud account, which contained thousands of family photographs and hundreds of videos. Apple said that the right to access the content ended with the death of the user, unless provided otherwise in law, meaning that access could only be granted by court order. While access was successfully obtained, the court case took three years and cost many thousands of pounds.
Problems may also arise where it is not clear who owns the digital content, with some accounts may involve granting the user a licence to use services, such as streaming and downloading online music and media, so a purchased library of music may not be transferable in the same way as a physical vinyl or CD music collection.
Such examples demonstrate the increasing importance of ensuring that digital assets remain secure and accessible to those who should benefit. Digital assets include all content, accounts and files created and stored in a digital form, whether online, in the cloud, or on a physical computer or smartphone. These assets may have great financial or sentimental value. Aassets with a tangible financial value are not limited to online bank or investment accounts. They could include cryptocurrency, online betting accounts, or internet payment accounts such as PayPal or other affiliate accounts that generate advertising or social media influencer revenue.
Social media accounts, personal photographs and other personal records and correspondence may be more sentimental in value, but there may be others, such as domain names or blogs.
It’s worth thinking about digital assets when making resolutions for 2021, as it's good business and household management to keep a record of exactly what you own. If you have a Will or plan to make one, it’s something to think about and discuss, and to let executors know. While physical assets are usually quite easy to identify, assets held online can be overlooked, particularly with the shift towards digital statements of account.
It’s something that should be considered when appointing anyone to help in the management of your interests under a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) for financial affairs. It may require special arrangements be in place for attorneys to manage digital accounts and assets.
Four steps to secure your digital life
1. List everything
Make a list of all your assets and accounts, and keep it up to date. A sealed copy can be provided for secure storage by your lawyer with your Will or power of attorney.
2. Secure passwords
Record and regularly update all usernames, passwords, and email address associated with the account. Store the details using one of the password-securing providers or keep a physical list safe and separate from the full list of accounts.
3. Check user licences
Find out what happens to an account on death, whether it is transferable, and decide what you wish your executors to do. Where legacy arrangements can be specified with a provider, do so.
4. Grant authority
Make sure your attorneys or executors have the authority they need to access and manage your digital assets by putting this in writing, having it witnessed, and storing securely.
For any help or support with digital assets please contact our dedicated Intellectual Property team.
For any advice and support on making or amending a Will, or Power of Attorney, please contact our Later Life Planning team, who will be happy to help.