Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that nothing in this life is certain except death and taxes, and many of us delay preparing for either. We wait until the deadline to do our taxes, but the hour of our death is a mystery, so it’s easy to put it off until another day. Unsurprisingly, roughly two-thirds of UK residents have not made a will.
If you’ve bucked the trend and made formal plans for your estate, that’s great. When the inevitable comes, your family will find it much easier to sort your physical possessions and financial assets. But what about your digital estate?
Digital estates, digital legacies, digital remains: whatever you call them, most of us haven’t thought about them, and that spells hassle for anyone trying to sort your affairs. Financial and other practical information may be locked within your devices and accounts, secured with two-factor authentication systems. Sentimental memorabilia like photos may be inaccessible too. So why don’t we just make plans for our digital legacy?
First, we don’t realise how much there is to consider. Some digital assets may have inherent financial value, such as cryptocurrency, air miles or professional bodies of work like authors’ manuscripts and photographers’ images. We access financial accounts through password-protected online portals. Our personal digital archives contain emails, message histories, documents and photos. Our digital autobiography is stored within our social media accounts, blogs and personal websites.
Digital accounts that remain open and unmanaged after death can increase the risk of identity impersonation or fraud against an estate, and inability to access practical and sentimental information can cause frustration and emotional pain for family and friends. If you assume that your family has the legal right to access any digital information that they might need or want after your death, you’re wrong. Without passwords, family members are highly unlikely to get access to an account or its contents, however tragic the situation. Expect one-account-one-user services, which are rightly preoccupied by data protection, to be relentlessly unsympathetic.
Furthermore, you cannot legally bequeath what you do not actually own, such as iTunes and Kindle libraries, or accounts themselves. It’s understandable that people don’t realise these things, because most services and apps don’t make it easy. T&CS are lengthy, most people don’t read or understand them, and many companies haven’t planned for the end from the beginning anyway. Current laws and regulations are lagging behind and won’t be much help.
These are considerable challenges, but don’t give up. There are things you can do now to plan for your digital legacy. First, for all the online accounts that matter to you or whose contents may be important for others, check for T&Cs that outline what happens when an account holder dies. Some service providers, like Facebook and Google, allow for nomination of a kind of digital executor. Seek advice from online organisations like the Digital Legacy Association, and if you’re using a wills and probate specialist, find one who’s digitally savvy.
Make a digital-era will. UK law isn’t quite there yet with respect to considering digital legacies, but you can still make your wishes known. Keep a list of your online accounts with your will, but be careful about leaving behind the passwords too. In life or in death, these could be misused in the wrong hands, or could compromise the privacy of others. Consider entrusting them to your executor or solicitor.
Finally, don’t put all your eggs in one digital basket. Technology changes quickly, and you shouldn’t give sole charge of your most cherished information to profit-driven tech companies. For any digital or online information that’s important, periodically back it up or transform it into a format that you can control.
Elaine Kasket is a counselling psychologist and the author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of Your Personal Data (Robinson/Little Brown, £9.99), now available