The remarkable transformation we have seen from a world where everything was physical to a digitally enabled environment has changed the way we live. 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 93% of people with a will have not included any digital assets in it. Just 7% said they fully understand what happens to these assets once they have passed away. This is particularly concerning given that each digital channel and possession often requires different treatments.
Significant digital assets in value
One area that has gained attention among investors is non-fungible tokens (NFTs). These are assets that are unique and irreplaceable, which are verified and stored using blockchain technology. Encompassing everything from music to a website domain, 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. 2022 research from HMRC and Kantar Public assessed that 10% of UK adults have held cryptocurrency, up from 5.7% in January 2021’s Financial Conduct Authority data. 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) are very clear that their offering comes with single user rights and so ends with the death of the user and cannot be passed on.
Apple and Google, however, approach rights differently. Apple’s Digital Legacy lets people choose up to five family members or friends who can access their account when they are no longer around using a special access key and with a copy of the death certificate. This gives access to the data stored in iCloud, such as photos and documents. Google, meanwhile, allows users to set up an inactive account manager, selecting up to 10 trusted contacts and granting permissions based on what emails, files and information you want them to access.
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.
The forgotten assets
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.
Take back control
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 list your accounts. Please note that this access should not be detailed in your will, which will eventually become publicly available once probate has been granted. 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, relevant email addresses and directions for ease of access. There is also a burgeoning number of providers who offer online ’safety deposit boxes’ for a fee to store your login details securely. Examples of these providers are Assetlock, Deathswitch and Legacy Locker. This information would then be made available to your nominated individual following your death. You can also use your inventory to highlight what assets you want preserved and what should 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 between platforms. For those interested, we have included some examples of these at the end of this article – information which can be used by you to see if you want a profile memorialised (if that is an option) or removed.
Whatever action you take, it’s important you appreciate the breadth and complexity of your digital assets, giving them the attention they deserve in any wealth planning scenario, whatever your family circumstances. Often assets may have sentimental value too 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
Meta has different approaches for its platform. On Facebook, you can choose to have your profile deleted after your death when that’s requested by a verified family member. The requester needs to provide proof of death, such as a death certificate. Alternatively, your 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. Unsurprisingly, the approach for WhatsApp varies too given users are identified only through their phone number, rather than a username. 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.
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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.