Have you thought about your digital afterlife?

The Momentum UK Team 11 March 2014

Research by cloud storage company Rackspace suggests that 25% of people have more than £200 worth of assets online. The company surveyed 2000 people and from their findings, they estimated that the UK has around £2.3 billion in digital assets.

While your physical possessions can be left to a loved one in a will, it might be worth a thought on your digital assets. Digital inheritance is becoming increasingly important with the growth of the Bitcoin economy, the harvesting of huge swathes of online data, and more and more digital media purchases.

When you’re putting together a will you may want to think digital as well as physical when it comes to dividing up your legacy.

Digital purchases

The legal situation surrounding digital purchases and online ownership remains murky as the law evolves to keep up with the pace of digital advancement. For music files, films and e-books, customers may have purchased a license to use the files, rather than ownership of the files themselves, sometimes rendering their use after the death of the purchaser a problem. Digital content rights are usually non-transferrable. BBC Radio4 recently told the story of an Apple iPad being passed from a mother to son in her will. Apple have refused to unlock the device without a court order; they argue that this is part of their security measures, protecting users from any loss of iCloud data including emails, photos and messages.


Accessing digital accounts

Your email accounts and social media profiles might not be top of your list of items to bequeath, but most people have created a hefty proverbial footprint in the digital landscape. In recent years there have been several cases where access to ‘dead’ accounts such as Gmail and Facebook have not been granted by the courts, and the providers themselves have refused to hand over the account permissions to relatives of the deceased. It might be worth talking to a legal professional if you think this could affect you.

Data-inheritance services

Data-inheritance services have begun to pop up that release the passwords to accounts after the death of the owner, and using one of these services could provide a way to ensure that these accounts are passed on after your death. There are obviously potential security risks with handing over the ‘keys’ to your internet account, so it may be important to do some homework around service providers. 

There are even services out there that let you email people as far as 50 years into the future, meaning that you could schedule them to go out when you hit old age… although like many of the techniques above, this could prove to be a bit of a risky strategy. In some cases handing over account details may constitute a breach of the site’s or providers terms and conditions.

Be prepared

Digital inheritance is currently a grey area, but also an area of rapid development in the legal system. Making a will could be important in clearly stating your intentions for possessions, both physical and digital upon your death, dividing your estate as you’d like it to be.

You might want to think about:

  • Storing a list of any important online account details with your will (but not in your will). After all, if you no longer receive paper statements or bills it may be harder for your loved ones to piece together your estate.
  • Saving passwords for online accounts in your will - but this can get confusing when passwords frequently change. A will also becomes a public document after your death, so saving confidential passwords may not be the best idea. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in most instances, you are not supposed to be sharing passwords to your personal accounts with anyone.
  • Google’s Inactive Account Manager. After a user-defined period of inactivity, a series of prompts go to anyone’s details you have given to act on your behalf, or the accounts are deleted according to your preferences.
  • Contacting a specialist legal professional. In such a complicated area, contacting a lawyer about the implications of your digital inheritance might shed some light on your particular situation.

To find out more about inheritance, read our guide to wills or our overview of estate planning in retirement.