Bharbhage Singh

Senior Legal Assistant

Wills, Trusts and Probate

Inheriting the Un-Inheritable - what happens to your digital assets when you die?

Bharbhage Singh

According to a YouGov poll 52% of people who have ‘digital assets’ said that they have made no arrangements about what should happen to those assets when they die. One of the main duties of an executor or administrator of an estate is to locate and realise the assets of the deceased, but what happens in circumstances when all the executor has is a laptop and mobile phone?

Most of us now have some form of ‘digital footprint’, whether it be social media accounts or online financial accounts, but, when ticking the box to accept the terms and conditions how many of us take the time to check to see if and how these accounts can be accessed and passed on in the event of death?

The ‘how’ question can easily answered, the creation and maintenance of an ‘online directory’ listing all online or digital accounts would be the suggested thing to do.  Care should, however, be taken if account passwords and pin numbers are included, as passing on such things can be in breach of the platform or provider’s terms and conditions. It might also cause difficulties with your insurer should any passwords fall unintentionally into the ‘wrong hands’.

Whether or not you have ownership of your digital and online accounts – and, therefore, the right to pass them to your beneficiaries, is a more complex question, and one which has yet to be adequately addressed by our legislators.

Digital or online accounts where there is an underlying financial asset (eg, online bank accounts) but which are merely accessed via a digital platform will form part of your estate and will be under the control of your executors. The same would also be the case for media, such as photographs and music, which have been permanently downloaded onto a device.

The position as regards digital assets which are stored and accessed via third party platforms, however, are more difficult to deal with – and that might be the case whether or not they have a financial value.  Most online platforms such as Facebook, iTunes, Youtube and Spotify operate on a user ‘license’ basis, meaning the account holder only has a license to use the accounts during their lifetime. Apple’s iCloud terms and conditions, for example, include a ‘no right of survivorship’ clause and under which users must agree that the account will terminate on death.

The courts are beginning to hear cases to determine the rights of beneficiaries to such assets, but a firm position has yet to be determined. It is quite often the case that whilst such assets might have no financial basis, they do have huge sentimental value and that will, more often, be more important to your loved ones.

If you would like to discuss your estate and assets in more detail please contact the team:

T 0115 988 8777

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