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Don’t let your digital assets end up in a digital grave

In 2018, according to Forbes, the top ten YouTube stars were earning between $14.5 and $22 million. The top earner was a seven-year old boy named Ryan who reviewed toys for other children.

While most of us are not in that league, many people now have a wide variety of online accounts which create a digital presence.  This includes social media profiles, blogs or vlogs, online accounts for gambling, banking, pensions and investments such as shares, peer-to-peer lending or cryptocurrency. A great deal of value may be locked in online accounts and may not be easily accessible to your family or your solicitor.

Such was the case with Gerald Cotton, the chief executive of a cryptocurrency exchange, who died in late 2018 aged 30.  He left no way of accessing nearly $150 million in digital assets and all efforts to trace and secure the digital accounts have proved unsuccessful.

Deborah Adams, Director of Private Client Services for Parnalls Solicitors advises clients to make plans for their digital assets when they make a will and sets out who has the right to them when you die.

What is the value in digital assets?

There is no definitive legal rule stating what happens to digital assets on death, because online assets vary in nature and they will have value in a number of ways.  For example:

  • cash balances in savings, investment accounts, including any positive balances on gambling or gaming accounts;
  • income, such as advertising revenues from significant followings on a blog or vlog, or income from licensing multimedia (photos, music, sound effects etc); an online shop or products on a marketplace such as Etsy;
  • intellectual property, such as valuable domain names;
  • personal memorabilia such as social media accounts, photo sharing accounts, music; or
  • digital documents you store in online accounts such as a Christmas card list or the draft of a book.

Why this needs to be addressed in your will

The law has not caught up with technology and every internet service provider (ISP) has a different policy.  For example, digital assets with monetary value will form part of your estate and will pass legally to your beneficiaries.  On the other hand, not all digital assets will be owned personally by you and so are not transferable.  If you use iTunes, Spotify or Flickr, for instance, these services are licensed to you and the licences will terminate on your death.

If you do not specify what should happen to these online accounts in your will, then you could cause problems for your executors.  Not only will they have trouble tracing or accessing accounts, but there is a risk of online fraud and abuse.  Where a digital asset of financial value is left dormant after death, it will be an attractive target for cyber criminals.

What I should do about my digital assets?

Think about the digital assets you own and how you want to deal with them in your will.  For example, if you have a social media account containing extensive personal information which you would not want to stay online after your death, you can use your will to govern who deactivates, removes or even memorialises your online social presence.

You can leave any digital assets with financial value to whoever you choose, so think about how you want these to be managed.  Who is to gain access to the accounts and who will inherit their value?

Also consider whether you have the right to leave digital assets with a sentimental value, such as your iTunes account or YouTube channel as this will depend on the terms and conditions of the ISP.  What you can do is download your music library so that all is not lost when the licence terminates on death.

Making a list of all your digital assets to discuss with your solicitor will help you to decide which ones you can include in your will and how to do it most effectively.  These can either be included in your Will or action specified in a private letter.

Our specialist wills solicitors will take full details of your online presence and advise you how best to ensure your digital assets are effectively managed and protected in your will.  For further information, please contact Deborah Adams, Director of Private clients Services on 01566 772375 or email adamsd@parnalls.com

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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