Your money is tied up in online banking, your digital photos and home movies are stored in the cloud, your entire social life is on Facebook and your important documents live on a password-protected computer — when it comes to the digital footprint you leave behind after you die, there are major practical (and legal) implications for tying up all those loose ends.
While you may have considered what to do with your house after you die, technology and legal experts are now warning that our digital lives need some attention too. A 2013 global survey from McAfee found that we store roughly $35,000 worth of digital assets on our devices — almost the same price as a new BMW.
Speaking to CBS News last month, digital legacy specialist and co-founder of the blog The Digital Beyond, Evan Carroll said laws on digital property vary from region to region, while some people address their digital estate in their will and some don’t.
“We have entered this time as a society where we’re a bit ahead of our laws and our policies with respect to our digital policy,” said Carroll.
In Australia, NSW Trustee & Guardian (the government department that provides legal and estate planning advice for Australia’s most populous state) says that the issue isn’t just one of financial losses.
As an example, the department says 9 out of 10 Australians have a social media account, but 83 percent of these people haven’t discussed what happens with these accounts after they’re gone.
NSW Trustee & Guardian Assistant Director for Legal Services Ruth Pollard said we all add to our “digital legacy” every day, but few of us have steps in place to look after this legacy in the event of death.
“The problem is that it is not as easy to transfer digital assets as it is tangible assets such as a car, house or shares,” said Pollard. “Without planning for death there is a danger that the digital assets will become inaccessible or be destroyed when a person dies.”
“With the increase in storing personal information online it is more difficult for executors to determine just what are your assets. Take for example online banking — it is very difficult for an executor to determine what bank or credit unions a deceased person was a member of [when] there are no obvious paper statements sitting in a folder in a filing cupboard anymore.”
Pollard says all Australians should take steps to future-proof their digital assets and simplify the process of executing their will. And while you may consider yourself too young to be thinking about the big sleep, these tips make good advice for anyone who has left their mark on the digital world.
Preparing your digital legacy
- “Compile a list of all your digital assets and online services”
Include social media, cloud services, email, banking, PayPal, blogs, photos, video storage, eBooks and anything that you don’t want to slip into the digital ether.
- “For each account or service list the location, the username and password and what files are stored”
If you have lots of passwords, you might opt for a password manager to simplify this. Pollard also suggests leaving instructions for your executor on digital locations for photos and videos, “otherwise a lot of family history and memories can be lost”.
- “Check the terms of agreement, licence or policy of your account”
According to Pollard, different online accounts have different conditions for what happens to the account when you die, so it pays to know the difference. “Some social media providers may allow for accounts to be memorialised when a user dies (such as Facebook), but others may not,” she said. “Some providers (for example, Microsoft) may be prepared to provide copies of information, documents and photos on the account to the next of kin or the executor, whereas others may simply close the account or delete the contents.”
- “Think about what you want to happen to [your accounts and files] on your death.
“Do you want social media accounts closed, or memorialised? Do you want photos or emails downloaded, printed and distributed to family and friends? Consider whether you wish to replace books and music with hard copies as ebooks and music purchased from iTunes and Amazon cannot be gifted by will as you obtain them under licence and cannot own them.”
- If you’re making local copies of digital information, keep in mind that storage methods change over the years.
“Floppy discs aren’t really used any more…Will it be the same in 10 years time for the current methods of storage we’re using?
- Lists of usernames, passwords and account numbers should not be put into your Will.
“There may be a number of people including your beneficiaries who will be entitled to have a copy of your Will, and so to ensure privacy and protect against fraud…include these instructions in a separate document and let your executor know where you keep this document.”