Digital Assets: Knowledge is Power

Posted on: February 5th, 2019

We live in a world of increasing digital complexity. Nearly all of us have access to email; many have more than one including personal and work email addresses. As a result of concerns of fraud, we are encouraged to be careful with our personal details.

We are told never write down passwords or PIN numbers. The latest comment in online security suggests that we are not always following that advice. Understandably, the more of an internet presence we have, the harder it is to recall the increasing number of login details.

There are circumstances in which it is important to release your passwords to a trusted individual. On your death, or should you become unable to manage your own financial affairs, is there anyone who is aware of the extent of your online presence?

There is no definitive definition of digital assets and these can take many forms. Online bank accounts are now commonly recognised as such assets, but other examples include funds held with PayPal, eBay and other selling sites and even the National Lottery. Unless you keep a comprehensive offline record of these or a note of your login details, you may find that certain assets you own are missed by executors and attorneys and lost all together.

I have come across an estate in which a widower took to online poker tournaments as a way of managing his grief following his wife’s passing. His executors were aware of his hobby but it was only when the diligent executors decided to contact the online poker company to shut down the account that they discovered this hobby had netted the estate poker winnings well in excess of £40,000. Contact was made just weeks before the account winnings would have been lost due to the account becoming inactive for a set period as per the poker website’s terms and business.

The executors and attorneys of a professional photographer may find that they are unable to access the life work of the deceased, which could cause huge loss of value to the estate. The same is true for authors of unpublished work. J R R Tolkien and Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) are just two of many authors with work published posthumously. It is easy to do so where there is a written manuscript. With computers being used widely by modern authors it is always possible that such gems will be lost forever.

Be aware that in terms of some digital assets we don’t necessarily own what we think we do. When using online services we often blindly agree to terms and conditions which mean that we are restricted in our use of digital assets. Data held in social media accounts may be owned by online service providers and it may be difficult even for executors to gain access after you die. If there is anything sensitive posted to the site, the most that can be done is to turn the profile into a memorial, making it clear the owner has died but not much more. It can not be deleted unless your executors or attorneys have your account login details. This has started to change as with a Facebook account you can now use the Legacy button to ‘will’ your account to another person.

We would always encourage you to handle your personal and financial affairs privately and securely, but you should also consider pragmatically how your attorneys under a power of attorney or executors under your will would obtain an accurate idea of your estate or manage your data.

If you have any digital assets, we strongly recommend that you collate your accounts, usernames and passwords and arrange for your executors or attorneys to have access when needed. You might wish to store such information safely with your will or powers of attorney. At the very least, it is sensible to have a list of such assets that your executors/attorneys can investigate. For those who are particularly computer savvy, you may also store this information in one private online document and provide a single password required for access to your chosen person.