Digital assets and estate planning

What is a digital asset?

There is currently no legal definition of ‘digital asset’. However, it is broadly understood as referring to any content, account or media created and stored either online or on a digital device. Examples of digital devices include smartphones, iPads and computers.

This means digital assets can range from social media accounts to e-books and digital music files. They also include accounts with websites such as eBay, Amazon, PayPal, iTunes etc.

Other examples of digital assets include:

  • Facebook entries and photos;
  • blogs and tweets;
  • photos and videos uploaded to a storage or sharing website;
  • any websites created using a third party’s services and hosting facilities; and
  • sent emails.

How can you preserve your digital assets?

The concept of digital assets is relatively new. Because of this, there is so far little consistency of approach amongst service providers, and no single definitive answer on how to preserve them. You should therefore plan ahead to prevent digital assets of sentimental or monetary value from being lost.

If you would like your personal representatives (these are the people responsible for dealing with your estate) and family members to have access to your digital assets after you die, you should consider leaving a record of your various accounts, together with login details and passwords. You should also indicate how you would like your personal representatives to deal with the assets after your death.

Given the potentially sensitive and personal nature of certain digital assets, this information should be contained within a sealed letter stored with your will, as opposed to in the will itself. This is because once you die, your will becomes a public document. Storing the information in a sealed letter, alongside your will, therefore maintains a degree of privacy.

Where digital assets on the web are owned by online service providers, your personal representatives may have difficulty accessing your digital accounts.

For example, you might decide to purchase a given amount of storage from an online service provider (e.g. Google), in order to store your digital photos. To view, add and/or delete the photos, you will need to sign in to your account. You own the account, and you own the digital photos. What you do not own is the storage facility – that is owned by the online service provider. This is where the (potential) difficulty arises; the online service provider may not allow your personal representatives access to your account. This might be because doing so would breach their privacy policy.

Therefore, where possible, you should keep hard copies of your digital assets, or store them on a disc.