In the old days, when a person died, their photo albums, letters and random papers and mementos automatically passed to their next of kin. As Michele Carby from Infinity Financial Solutions points out, in the digital era, the situation is not so clear.
Few people give a thought to what will happen to all the data they have stored online, including emails, web albums, banking information, Dropbox accounts and even blogs, and, as yet, lawmakers have not succeeded in legislating this thorny issue.
Currently, technology companies have terms-of-service agreements in place that don’t allow anyone to access an account which isn’t theirs. Trying to access other people’s accounts using passwords, even ones which have been entrusted to you, violates these agreements and could see an individual accused of cybercrimes. There have been several recent cases in the US of individuals fighting to gain access to the accounts of deceased family members for both sentimental and practical reasons; it’s a situation that more and more families will face as we increasingly conduct our lives online.
There are some serious privacy issues to consider here. Would you be happy to give your nearest and dearest access to your online life? You may be happy for them to see your holiday snaps but what about those risqué selfies sent to your partner? Privacy campaigners believe that the privacy of both the deceased and those who communicate with them should be protected. They advocate a policy whereby access to information should be granted by a judge, arguing that in the pre-digital offline world, most of us would throw away the vast majority of our communication, keeping only the most important. This is not the case online, with huge amounts of personal information and communication stored indefinitely.
Tech providers are trying to get to grips with this issue and some have come up with their own solutions. Google, for example, will delete accounts if the owner doesn’t log in for a certain time, or allow access for a previously designated individual. Yahoo’s terms of conditions state that a user’s account will cease to exist upon their death whereas Facebook will now memorialise accounts, enabling existing friends to view content. Yet questions remain over whether these technology companies should decide the fate of our digital assets, and the courts have overruled their policies in certain cases.
Many among Asia’s expat community have online assets that make money. Websites, blogs and social media accounts are geared to producing revenue; sometimes they can produce millions of dollars a year. Many of these valuable assets are often also in a legal grey area, and without the means to claim ownership, beneficiaries of the deceased may lose out on a significant legacy.
The US is leading the way on legislation concerning digital assets. The Uniform Law Commission recently passed an act giving loved ones access to the digital assets of a deceased family member but also allowing individuals to express their privacy choices in a will. If introduced, this act would override the terms-of-service agreements mentioned above, though it remains to be seen whether US states will adopt it.
While this issue remains largely unresolved, many estate planning experts advise individuals to make provisions in their wills for what happens to their digital assets as well as their physical ones. At present, there’s no guarantee that your wishes will be carried out but it’s the best you can do while lawmakers try to keep pace with technological advances.