Dealing with digital property after death

Dealing with digital property after death can cause more grief.

Problems in dealing with digital property after the death of a loved are more common given the digital age we live in.

Such problems may also come with financial consequences. Indeed, if  McAfee the internet security company is correct, digital property may well be worth more than a car for the average Canadian ! A 2013 McAfee survey estimated the average Canadian owned some $32,000 in digital assets including movies, music, games, digital photos, communications and social media profiles and blogs. (They estimated the global average to be  $35,000 in digital assets.) Many of these digital assets come with complicated terms of service agreements which can be frustrating or impossible for loved ones to access. Depending on where you live, such agreements might even put loved ones in legal trouble based on anti-hacking or privacy statutes after their loved ones die.

The real problem is that people do die  (!) 

Estimates are that as many as 10,275 Facebook users and 5.700 iTunes owners die each day so dealing with those users’ digital property is an issue. The recent story of a widow in Victoria trying to access games on her deceased husband’s iPad highlights the problem. Shortly after Peggy Bush’s husband died , the 72-year-old, tried to play games her husband had purchased before his death.  Nothing short of a court order was good enough to be able to access those iTunes games including a death certificate or the will until CBC Go Public stepped in and Apple stepped up.

As the article points out, digital property is unique from other property owned by a loved one. While users of digital property own the material online for the most part, access to it is controlled by  providers like Apple. Providers set the rules when it comes to accessing what we put online and the content purchased. One solution is that providers should offer clearer, “plain speak”  policies dealing with digital property and access. The last time I checked, the I Tunes terms and conditions were some 28 pages long. I doubt even lawyers read them when setting up their I Tunes account.

Canadian laws need to be more clear about who owns or controls what is put online after someone dies. In the US, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act will hopefully solve the problem for Americans using the concept of “media neutrality“. Such legislation would give the account holder the power to decide what happens to his or her digital assets in the same way they do for physical or financial assets. Delaware was the first state to take the lead and enact such legislation but many other states have introduced such legislation for consideration. While I’m an accountant not a lawyer, I’m not aware of any such legislation being contemplated.

What steps can be taken to secure your digital property for your loved ones? 

There are a few key to do’s to safeguarding digital property  that I can suggest when it comes to digital assets or property:

Plan Ahead – make a list of important passwords and online accounts and specify what should be done with each of those accounts if you were to become incapacitated or die

Keep your list up to date regularly review your list for any changes (and additions) you have made

Store and share – store your list in a secure location and let family members/executors know how to access that list. Don’t make the mistake of listing all your online accounts and passwords in your will or power of attorney as they can’t be guaranteed to remain secure

Backup – ensure you back up your digital assets if they are stored online; backup data to a local computer or a USB or similar storage device on a regular basis.

Estate planning – work with an estate lawyer to update your wills and powers of attorney to include digital property. Given that only 56% of Canadians have a will – make a will if you don’t have one. Specify your wishes about what happens to your digital assets after death and provide consent /authorizations so that your loved ones/executors can deal with them appropriately. This would include password resets or recoveries.

LegacyTracker can help provide protection for your digital assets by providing a secure spot for you to safely store your online usernames and passwords. LegacyTracker also enables secure  sharing of your important information with loved ones, advisors or executors.