You’ve made your will. Everything is in place for your death. Except perhaps your digital assets management plan.
This is a list of all the digital or online “stuff” a person uses, including passwords and usernames for social media and email services. Legal experts welcome a booming cultural trend towards making a written plan.
Sometimes called a digital estate inventory, the plan lawyers recommend comes with a will so family or friends can access online sites and services.
“Increasingly people are thinking of this and making an inventory,” says Kathy Wilson, chair of the Law Institute of Victoria’s succession law committee. “But it is interesting how slow most people are, considering how quickly social media is moving. My advice is to keep a record of everything and give it to the executor of the will in a sealed envelope.”
Tasmanian lawyer Kimberly Martin says Australia needs laws to give executors control over the digital estates of friends or family who have died, even if no list has been made. Delaware in the United States is one of the few jurisdictions to have such a law.
She says the inventory could be a handwritten list, a computer file or an encrypted digital file, and could include valuable things such as domain names, online businesses or bitcoins but more commonly would hold data of sentimental value such as photographs and emails. These might be held in cloud storage or on third-party hosting sites. A digital asset can range from passwords and usernames to software registration codes, images, audio, video, email and documents and can often be spread across multiple platforms with different policies – a “parallel succession regime”, says Martin.
Melbourne lawyer and wills and estates specialist James Daly says people’s digital information can be “nightmarish” to negotiate. Much of it is legally untested and covered in multiple jurisdictions. He says that with digital music held on iTunes “you are, in effect, leasing those songs from Apple. So what happens if someone wants them when you die?” The trend towards fingerprint access to some digital devices complicated the issue further. “This is an area that can cause real grief,” he says. “It is very tricky.”
The new trend has also led to a boom in companies who can be hired to sort it all out and gain access where wanted on behalf of a family. Pedram Afshar from the Sydney company eClosure says his company can shut social media pages, but he says a client from Queensland lost their adult son to suicide late last year and cannot access his Google account or gmails without a US court order. Google is based in California. Afshar has re-applied to them for access.
Google has a program called inactive account manager that lets users decide how long data is kept and also nominate others who can log in.
Facebook Australia says it allows an “authorised” person to request a Facebook page be deleted after death or request that a page be “memorialised” with links to obituaries or documentation of the death.