Digital Assets

Have you ever thought about what happens to your digital assets on death?

We do more and more on-line, and assets and personal information are often stored in digital format. Personal representatives who deal with a person’s estate after death face difficulties in accessing the deceased’s on-line accounts, information and assets and the companies who hold the information are reluctant to grant rights of access to personal representatives in case it’s a breach of confidentiality and privacy issues.

Common types of digital assets include blogs, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, books stored on-line and articles written, but there are also items such as photographs which have great sentimental value.

Personal representatives have an obligation to value all the assets held by a deceased but there are two issues; how do they access the information after death and who owns the data?

In a recent case, a widow spent thousands of pounds on a battle with the tech giant Apple to try to obtain photographs of her daughter which were stored on her late husband’s mobile phone.Under UK law she had no legal right to access the information but, after a protracted three-year battle, a Judge at Central London County Court ruled in her favour and she was awarded access to her late husband’s phone.

Many internet service providers are reluctant to grant rights of access to on-line accounts to the personal representatives because of confidentiality and privacy issues.There could also be intellectual property implications.

On creating an account with the internet service providers, we sign up to their standard terms and conditions which vary substantially between different internet providers.We, as account holders, should be aware of what happens on death in order to be able to plan ahead to prevent digital assets of sentimental or monetary value being lost, locked or destroyed.

Some options offered in terms and conditions are:

  • Permission for the personal representative of an estate to access information following the death of an account holder upon production of a death certificate or a grant of probate;
  • Selecting a nominee who can access the account following death;
  • Termination of the account and deletion of all information; and
  • Memorialisation of the content for some time before it is finally deleted.

Care needs to be taken in drafting relevant clauses in a will to deal with digital assets and appointing personal representatives to deal with those digital assets.Consideration should also be given to how to provide the personal representative with access to your digital assets after death.

RDP are specialists in private client and data protection legal services, for any advice on issues covered in this article please get in touch on 01633 603178.

This article was written by Director and Head of Private Client Sioned Thomas.