The remarkable transformation we have seen from a physical world to a digitally enabled environment has dramatically changed how we live today. The internet and related services give us the freedom to manage simple aspects of our lives from the comfort of our home or office. We socialise, shop, sort out holidays and bank on desktops and mobile devices.
But the pace of change we are witnessing carries with it a unique risk that, for many, has not been dealt with when planning their wealth succession. Research from The Law Society published in 2021 shows that just 26% of respondents know what happens to their digital assets after they die – with only 7% saying they fully understand and 19% saying they somewhat understand. These figures are also concerning given each type of digital asset often requires a different treatment.
One area that is gaining a lot of attention in the investment world at present is non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
These are unique assets that can’t be replaced with something else, and are verified and stored using blockchain technology. They can include everything from music to a website domain, but the most common form of NFT at present is digital artwork. A number of traditional auction houses and online trading sites are now trading NFTs, demonstrating their growing popularity as an asset of value.
Another example of complex digital wealth is cryptocurrency. Statistics released in June 2021 by the UK regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, showed more than 2.3 million UK adults hold cryptocurrencies, around a 20% increase year-on-year. And despite their highly volatile long-term prices, these assets are likely to have a digital footprint worth preserving.
Alternatively, there may be assets that have valuable intellectual property (IP) rights attached, such as copyright, patents and trademarks. If these are complex or extensive, you may want to set out specific powers to administer these assets separately, which may require (additional) professional executors, not least as what you consider IP may not be the case. Website domain names, for instance, are only treated similarly to phone numbers.
Then there are sentimental digital assets to consider. Anyone who is even an occasional user of social media may have amassed images and videos that are legally owned by the provider. Some services, such as Amazon (e.g. Kindle) and Apple (e.g. iTunes), are very clear that their services are offered with single user rights and so end with the death of the user and cannot be passed on.
While there are steps you can take, depending on the platform, it is better to think ahead and ensure it is clear who is responsible for these and who can manage the user profile – not least as it is often a very helpful channel to communicate a bereavement.
Ensuring non-physical assets are recorded and handed down is now a very real consideration when it comes to wealth planning.
There are other assets that can easily slip through the net of any typical estate valuation. These include digital vouchers, funds held in digital wallets and online gambling accounts, or other funds held in payment services, such as PayPal.
Even non-monetary assets, such as those on social media accounts, may have significant value. Quite apart from the sentimental value for the next of kin and loved ones, it is vital that families take steps to both protect and maintain control of these as part of the overall estate.
Proving ownership, however, is not as straightforward as it might seem. Many digital assets (particularly of monetary value) are likely to be password protected in a way that prevents anyone – even the next of kin – gaining access after death. This could trigger a long and uncomfortable legal battle to claim inheritance rights – and most probably at the worst time emotionally for the family.
Despite the unenviable situation families can find themselves in by overlooking the digital portion of an individual’s estate, there are steps you can take now to ensure both the monetary and sentimental assets remain accessible to your family.
The most important thing is to declare all these assets alongside (but not in) your will, which will eventually become publicly available once probate has been granted. It is also wise to keep a secure and protected record of passwords, account numbers and related email addresses – and entrust access to a relative. Don’t assume, however, that person will have an automatic right to access digital channels, as many terms and conditions for such platforms ensure all content is withheld by law.
And, while there might be the option for a backup using a hard drive and archiving assets, there are other practical steps you can take to protect your digital assets for the next generation.
For example, preparing an inventory of your digital assets makes sense, providing details of what you hold and how they can be accessed. The details of any computer software or online accounts should also include passwords and directions for ease of access and there are a burgeoning number of providers who offer (for a fee) online ’safety deposit boxes’ to store your login details securely. That information would then be made available to your nominated individual following your death. Examples of these providers are Legacy Locker, Assetlock and Deathswitch. You can also use this list to highlight what assets you want preserved and what are to be deleted or destroyed.
When it comes to preserving or deleting assets held on social media platforms, most social media firms have specific processes in place but these vary significantly platform by platform. For those interested, we have included some examples of these at the end of this article.
Whatever action you take, it’s important your story lives on. The complex and relatively unknown impact of your demise on many digital assets means they deserve the closest of attention in any wealth planning scenario, whatever your family circumstances. Other assets, meanwhile, have sentimental value and having a plan in place could help your family while they are grieving.
Working through your digital life is important and – setting out plans between a will and a letter of wishes (which sits alongside the legal documents and allows you to set out your wishes without these eventually making their way into the public domain) – is a fundamental part of the estate planning process.
SPECIFIC ACTIONS FOR EACH SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNEL
Facebook (or Meta as the overarching company is now called) has different approaches for each platform. On its original platform, you can choose to have your profile deleted after your death when it’s requested by a verified family member. The requester needs to provide proof of death, such as a death certificate. Alternatively, Facebook profiles can be memorialised, the request for which needs to include a link to online proof of death, such as an obituary. To do this, a legacy contact should be set up so they can manage the account on your behalf.
Meta follows a similar protocol for its Instagram platform although, unlike Facebook, you cannot change or post any content to a memorialised profile. And, unsurprisingly, the approach for WhatsApp varies too, given users are identified only through their phone number, rather than a user name, and the platform recommends your family simply saves any photographs and videos to the phone and then removes the account.
Twitter, on the other hand, does not allow access to deceased people’s user profiles. The company will, however, deactivate an account for someone who is authorised to act on the behalf of the estate, or for a verified immediate family member of the deceased.
Meanwhile, LinkedIn also has a process for memorialising the profile of a deceased member, and the request has to be initiated by an authorised individual, although anyone can report the profile of a deceased member, which results in the account being hidden.
We regularly publish articles, videos and webinars with information to help you manage your wealth. Subscribe today to stay informed.
Clients of Nedbank Private Wealth can get in touch with their private banker directly to understand how wealth planning can help them achieve their financial goals and objectives, or call +44 (0)1624 645000 to speak to our client services team.
If you would like to find out more about how we can help you with wealth planning support, please contact us on the same number as above, or complete the contact us form using the link below.
Any examples of investments and structures used are for illustrative purposes only. The inclusion does not constitute an invitation or inducement to buy any financial investment or service. None of the content constitutes advice or a personal recommendation. Individuals should seek professional advice, based on their jurisdiction and personal circumstances, before making any financial decision.
If you are interested in becoming a client, please complete the form via the ‘become a client’ button below. Alternatively, if you are already a client, or if you have a question about how we help clients in particular circumstances, please use the ‘contact us’ button.
We will get back to you as soon as we can during office hours, which are Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm (UK time), except for UK public holidays.
Thank you for your interest in Nedbank Private Wealth. Please call us on +44 (0)1624 645000 or complete the requested information and one of our team will get back to you soon. We look forward to speaking with you. Please note: If you are an EU resident, we are unfortunately unable to offer our services to you at present.
* Required fields
Please call us today on +44 (0)1624 645000. Our office hours are weekdays from 8am to 8pm (UK time), except for UK public holidays.
Or please complete and submit the below form and one of the team will get back to you as requested.
* Required fields