Digital assets: a known unknown?

If we were to ask you what happens to your house or car or furniture when you die, chances are most of you would have some idea. “Of course,” we hear you say, “it would depend on what you’ve put in your will. And if you’ve not left a will… Aren’t there some rules that come into play? Something about intestacy?” And you’d be right (of course). 

But if we were to ask about what happens to your digital assets, some faces would, we expect, look a little blank. “Ok, then”, we’d say, “what happens to your Facebook account? Or your e-books? And what about your music downloads?” At this point, things might start to get a little less… clear. 

And that’s to be expected. Especially since the concept of digital assets hasn’t really been around all that long. 

So what is a digital asset?

Quite a lot, actually.  Broadly speaking, a digital asset is anything created and stored online or digitally (e.g. on a laptop, smartphone, tablet… you get the idea). This means that:

  • digital photos (the files, not the print-outs);
  • your Amazon account;
  • a blog;
  • your account with PayPal;
  • any social media accounts (e.g. with Facebook, Twitter and so on); and
  • your email account(s)

all count as digital assets. And those are only some examples, taken from a list that’s growing and growing. 

When an asset isn’t really an asset…

Some things which you might think of as being digital assets that you own, aren’t really yours at all. In fact, they’re not really assets at all. (We’re not making this up, honestly.)

Take your iTunes library. You’re probably thinking, “But I own everything in that – I paid for it, after all.” The answer to that is: yes… and no. Yes, you did pay for something, and no, you don’t own it. Rather, what you paid for is the licence to use those files. So, you can certainly listen to that film soundtrack you paid for and downloaded last week. But you can’t pass it on to someone under your will. That same applies to anything else you’ve downloaded from iTunes into your library. 

This is because, as a general rule, the licence will be specific to you, and won’t be transferrable. And if you’re thinking that Apple never mentioned this, think again. It’s all in their Software Licence Agreement - that alarmingly long document you would have been asked to read and indicate your agreement to when you first set up iTunes. 

… and when an asset really is an asset

On the other hand, there are some digital assets which you can own – such as digital photos. But, depending on how you store them, this can raise its own set of issues. 

You might choose to store all the digital photos you’ve taken to date online. After a doing a bit of research, you decide which online service provider you’d like to buy the storage from (e.g. Google, O2, etc.). And because you know that in order to add, edit and otherwise manage your photos, you’ll need to log into your account, you set one up. So far, so good. 

But here’s where it gets a little tricky. Because while you own the account and the photos stored on it, you don’t own the storage facility. That’s owned by the online service provider. And there’s no general rule stating that they should allow your personal representatives (the people responsible for dealing with your estate when you die) and family members access to your account. So they might refuse to do so (perhaps because that would breach their privacy policy).  

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, you’re probably wondering…

What does this mean?

If you decide that you’d like your personal representatives to have access to your digital assets once you pass away, you should consider leaving a record of all your online accounts, including login details. 

This information should be contained in a sealed letter that’s stored with your will, rather than in the will itself. Why? Two reasons, really:

  • your will becomes a public document once you die; and
  • digital assets can be quite personal, and may contain sensitive information (such as sent emails).

Oh, and where appropriate, you should also keep hard copies of your digital assets, or store them on a disc. 

You can read more about this on our page Digital assets and estate planning.

But more generally, all this just goes to show how important it is to be aware of the assets you have, and to take steps to ensure that they’ll go to those you actually want them to go to. 

And you can do that by clicking on the button at the top of the page.