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Can someone inherit a digital identity? At what point does an Instagram account become a business rather than a personal platform? We have already seen this happen with celebrities after they die; Paul Walker, Nipsey Hussle, and Michael Jackson all still have active Instagram accounts. The deceased rapper, Lil Peep, has faced significant controversy over his social media. As I write this, his most recent Instagram post is advertising new merchandise. While some argue that his family is aiming to continue his legacy, others argue that selling sweaters for $95 USD is simply an easy way to profit off Peep’s death.
But what if a celebrity passed away without the public knowing? Could someone run their accounts feigning that the person was still alive? Let’s take a look at Kylie Jenner – she makes approximately $1.2 million per sponsored Instagram post that she shares to her 197 million followers. In the two minutes it takes you to read this blog, she will have made around $633.53. If Kylie died, could someone inherit her account, followers, and digital personality? Between the power of digital image editing and the sheer number of selfies Kylie has taken, her account could hypothetically be run for years after her death. Kylie Jenner may be temporary, but @kyliejenner is immortal.
Who knows? Maybe this has been happening for years, and they are doing a good job of hiding it. Conspiracy? I think not.
For most of us, celebrity or not, our social media presence is an extension of who we are. While our biological body may have passed on, we continue to survive online. Planning your digital death is more than just a Black Mirror-esque fantasy – it is a current, existing issue. With 10,000 Facebook users dying every day, it is estimated that dead Facebook users could outnumber the living by 2069.
Planning your digital death is still relatively new, and possibilities are still being explored. Esther Earl, a sixteen-year-old girl battling thyroid cancer, shocked her loved ones when she tweeted six months after her death. The tweet read, “It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. Just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts.” While scheduling posts and updates is a cool way to live on (and freak out your friends), planning your digital legacy is usually much less glamourous. Some key tasks include compiling a list of your digital assets, specifying how you want your social media accounts to be handled, and telling a few trusted people where to find your passwords.
Most social media platforms allow for your account to be deactivated by a loved one after presenting a death certificate. This is essential, because there’s nothing worse than waking up to a reminder to wish your dead aunt Kathy a Happy Birthday. Facebook also has the feature to memorialize a user, freezing their account and protecting the user’s legacy. However, no amount of death certificates can give you access to a deceased person’s account. In 2012, a fifteen-year-old girl was hit by a subway train in Berlin. Her family sued Facebook for access her account to see if the girl was being cyberbullied. Facebook refused access, citing privacy legislation. After 6 years of legal battles, the family was finally granted access, but most people wouldn’t be so lucky. Moral of the story: leave a list of your passwords behind so that your loved ones can save on legal fees, and buy you flowers instead.
Cleveland-based startup Vital Chain, is focusing on the creation of digital death certificates and birth records using the distributed ledger technology.
Blockchain offers a lot of potential to vital records. It’s immutability, traceability and its ability for data storage has endeared it to many industries. It is now seen as a technology to store all kinds of records which now includes death certificates? As it is, Medici Ventures, the wholly-owned blockchain accelerator of Overstock.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: OSTK) has entered an agreement with Vital Chain in return for a minority stake.
Why Digitise Birth/Death Certificates?
The first identity document an individual gets when they are born is a birth certificate and the last document they get after they die is a death certificate. These documents are essential to the identity of a man therefore, it’s trail must follow a trustless and auditable path. Although the US has made a move towards digitizing death certificates, the current process for creating an initial record of birth or death is inefficient and fragmented.
The government is the custodian of the identities of its citizens. While identity is important to the government. Ensuring that IDs in various agencies are properly validated, stored and issued without increasing opportunities for errors, fraud and security breach is of topmost importance. But by using the blockchain, governmental agencies can verify birth registration information using the current existing standards of live birth certification. This registration can be secured on the blockchain with the parent controlling the data until the child is of legal age. Access to the cryptographically stored information will be granted by holders consent.
The Vital Chain’s Vision for Identity Storage
To create an innovative solution to this fragmented process of registering a death, Vital Chain is using the blockchain. The solution utilizes blockchain technology as storage for innovative birth and death certificates thereby reducing the reliance on the paper and digital insurance of these vital records. Vital chain is teaming with Medici Ventures, who will acquire an equity stake in Vital Chain to undertake some product development work for the company. By integrating with various government agencies and health systems, Vital Chain will help to save time, increase efficiency, and reduce costs associated with the vital records ecosystem.
Medici Ventures, a wholly-owned blockchain accelerator of Overstock.com is focused on accelerating the adoption of blockchain technology and changing the world. They are already working with companies who are integrating blockchain technologies to industries such as governance, identity, supply chain, capital markets, governance, money and banking, and voting.
According to Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock and president of Medici Ventures:
“Medici Ventures’ is committed to accelerating the adoption of blockchain technology, and Vital Chain is a meaningful addition to our identity pillar…”
Vital Chain is already making progress towards adoption with its partnership with the MetroHealth System. MetroHealth, a public health system and hospital group based in Cleveland, Ohio will work closely with Vital Chain to develop the product and spread its offer to hospitals across the country. On the other hand, Medici Ventures will acquire an equity stake in Vital Chain via product development work it will undertake for the company.
In the words of Shane Bigelow, the CEO of Vital Chain:
“Medici Ventures brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in helping companies like us to build meaningful technology in the identity realm. To have Medici, as the leader in the space, take an ownership stake in our company and involve us in their keiretsu is a great honour…”
Almost half (45 per cent) of Australians die without a will. And from the time someone dies, it usually takes about three years for loved ones to sort out their legal affairs.
- When someone dies, their tax debts don’t disappear, leaving loved ones having to sort out the mess through a tricky legal system
- Australia’s tax ombudsman, the Inspector-General of Taxation, has conducted a review into deceased estates and suggests having digital death certificates to make the process easier
- The issue of death and taxes is a source of common complaints from taxpayers to the ombudsman and the ATO, including claims that tax officers lack empathy
The long and difficult process of sorting out deceased estates could be made easier by allowing digital “death certificates” — or automatic notification using their Medicare number — which is legally enforceable and shared between all layers of government.
This is one of 10 recommendations made by Australia’s tax ombudsman, the Inspector-General of Taxation, in a new report delving into the complicated area of death and taxes.
The area is so legally fraught that each year it results in about 430 complaints by taxpayers to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and Inspector-General of Taxation.
“When you die, someone has to pick up the pieces,” Ms Payne said.
“It’s not just a tax matter but about ensuring affairs are left in an orderly state.”
There was no formal requirement to notify the ATO of a death.
But in order to get the deceased person’s tax affairs sorted, the person acting on their behalf — either their tax agent or the executor of their will where there is one — has to jump through various legal hurdles before being able to access records.
“Different government agencies have different systems and they do not necessarily align,” Ms Payne said.
“A ‘tell us once’ approach would also reduce the stress placed on representatives who are likely the relatives or friends of the deceased.”
Currently, multiple notifications of a death are required across federal, state and local government and various other business and community organisations.
160,000 Australians die each year, most with outstanding taxes
ABS data shows almost 160,000 Australians die each year — with about 82 per cent of them aged 65 or over at their date of death and about 55 per cent aged over 80.
State and territory laws determine who can represent the deceased after their death and a “grant of probate”, or letters of administration, are required before the ATO is able to freely engage with the legal representative.
The report notes that different institutions with which the deceased held assets may also impose their own requirements before assets are released.
The legal representative has to lodge any prior-year tax returns that are outstanding and deal with complex estate issues.
While there are no death taxes in Australia, there is still an obligation to pay tax on the earnings and investments that had been held by the deceased.
This may include taxes on superannuation payouts (generally the ATO will tax super payouts to nominated beneficiaries at 15 per cent) and capital gains taxes owed on any investments such as shares or property.
Before that can even happen, a tax return is required if a dead person had a taxable income higher than the tax-free threshold of $18,200 in the year that they died.
Since most taxpayers have reached retirement age at the date of their death, they may not have been required to engage with the tax system for some years before they pass away.
How Medicare numbers could help agencies data match
Ms Payne suggests that one way to make the whole process easier would be to have some sort of digital notification of a death that is shared across all government agencies — federal, state, and locally based.
Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency is currently working with NSW agencies and the ATO on a project to develop a digital death certificate by 2025.
But even then, information sharing across government would be limited due to restrictions surrounding the use of some unique identifiers, such as Tax File Numbers.
Ms Payne suggests there may instead be a benefit in exploring the use of Medicare numbers as a possible identifier.
However, it could take years for such a system to develop, and the report noted to date its development had been held up due to the high cost.
The report suggests that in the interim funeral directors “may be well placed to assist grieving friends and relatives to reduce their stress in dealing with the ATO by obtaining information from them which fills ATO data and information gaps”.
ATO could make it easier to get franking credits
Ms Payne says another common source of complaint by taxpayers about deceased estates relates to how to access a franking credit owed when their loved one passes.
“If you’re alive and don’t have to lodge a tax return — you get your franking credit refunded,” she said.
“But as soon as you die, that form no longer applies to you. There’s no easy way in which people acting on behalf of the deceased can apply.
“You can apply for a tax file number for a trust, and then lodge a tax return for a trust. It goes without saying that as soon as you step into the world of taxation of trusts, the level of complexity goes through the roof.”
The report recommends simplifying tax-filing requirements for a deceased taxpayer, especially simple estates and where filing is necessary to process “low-value” franking credits and other tax refunds.
The report also recommends that the ATO engage with tax practitioners, solicitors and barristers to help develop better guidance for taxpayers dealing with deceased estates.
“Deceased estate issues do not only involve taxation matters but also matters of inheritance, property law, family law, trust law, as well as various state and territory succession laws.”
The report said the ATO does not presently have a dedicated team to deal with deceased estate matters, unlike other government agencies, such as Services Australia.
It suggests “expertise should be developed within the ATO to advise holistically on deceased estate taxation issues”.
The ATO has agreed in full, or part, with all but one of the 10 recommendations.
It disagreed on a part of a recommendation to give binding advice to taxpayers — a move that would possibly help minimise tax disputes — noting that the law was already binding but that “to the extent advice would be about the application of the commissioner’s general power of administration, the ATO does not have the ability to give binding advi