As they say “Death is the golden key that opens the door to eternity.” Unfortunately, that key won’t be able to unlock your Bitcoin wallet or provide access to your LinkedIn account. There is no doubt about the fact that technology is an integral part of our lives. We have virtual friends, family, love, fights, business and, of course, assets. On death of a person, the real existence ends immediately but the virtual life lingers on for some more time. These digital assets provide lasting legacy to loved ones about the things that were important to the deceased, his/her values and memories.
Know your digital assets
Digital assets include all your virtual belongings – ecommerce websites, domain names, e-wallets, digital currency, monetised digital contents etc. Non-monetary assets include social media accounts, email accounts, photographs, music libraries, blogs, cloud storage accounts etc. Some of the so-called digital assets are licences that expire upon the death of a person. For example, Kindle book account, access to music or video streaming services etc. are mere licences to use during your lifetime. While it is important to plan for all the digital assets, some of the social media platforms have their own rules on what happens to these accounts upon the demise of the user.
Facebook allows its users to nominate someone under memorialization settings, where the nominated contact can manage and view the information available in the page and, if required, can close the account. Facebook will maintain this as a memorialization account, where the deceased person’s post will be visible as a memory post.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn do not allow the account to memorialised. On providing a letter along with the death certificate of the user, the account will be deleted and no access provided to any friend or family member.
Any family member or representative can reach out to Google to close the account, access data or claim funds. On completing certain formalities and providing the death certificate, Google may release funds and provide data access to the claimant on its discretion on a case-to-case basis and will eventually close the account.
Yahoo account is declared inactive and deactivated if the user has not logged into to the account for minimum of six months. Two additional months are added for every year account has existed.
Microsoft allows the data access of its MSN Hotmail to the next of kin of the deceased after its authentication process. The account is closed thereafter.
India has no law or formal guidelines on bequeathing of digital assets. The Information and Technology Act, 2000 does not give any clarity on its application for digital assets bequeathed through Wills and testaments. Also, none of the Succession Acts applicable in our country has mention of digital assets. In such a situation Digital Will can be just an informal document capturing desires of the author in dealing with his/her digital assets. Having said that it is still highly advisable to either write a separate Digital Will or include all the digital assets in the existing Will and clearly authorise someone to deal with these assets after demise.
The Practical Approach
When planning for your estate, you should consider preparing an e-register of all the digital assets. One obvious and practical solution to passing on your digital assets is to share the details of these e-register including login credentials with a close relative who would be inheriting your wealth. Apart from the fact that some of these passwords need to be changed regularly and one may not be able to update the e-register that frequently, there is inherent risk of these details getting into wrong hands. The way to deal with this could be using services of the Digital Asset Management (DAM) companies. DAM companies digitally manage and store these data and access to them is provided through a master password. Some of these DAM companies may also be able to store your scanned physical documents in digital form. Just like a bank nomination, the account holder can nominate someone to access these data after demise.
ConclusionWhile planning for inheritance most of us fail to plan for these digital assets but in the era of digital currency, digital wallets, digital content monetization, these assets can be really valuable ones. It is high time that we as a country have clear guidelines and laws on dealing with these assets. But till we have one, let us all recognise the importance of these digital assets in our lives and then include them in our estate planning exercise.