Death in the digital age: managing digital assets

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Death in the Digital Age
We all have scores of online accounts these days.  The value of the information associated with those accounts can be huge – both financially and in other, more nuanced ways.   Take, for instance, online storage services, to which years of photos or video footage (and the memories connected with that) can be uploaded. Or a blog with thousands of blog posts published over a period of years.  Until quite recently, this type of digital content hadn't been considered by those making wills, and even now it's the exception rather than the norm.

I’ve blogged previously about some of the difficulties associated with digital assets when someone dies.  As more and more aspects of our lives occur online, or at least have an online element, remembering to include digital assets when drafting wills becomes ever more important.

The Co-operative Funeralcare have published a report revealing that of the 94 per cent of UK adults who hold online accounts, 75 per cent of those have not considered or made arrangements for the management of their digital presence after they die. 

At best, omitting digital assets from a person’s will may leave a number of untidy loose ends.  That can bring with it additional anguish for those they leave behind - adding to their grief - and it can leave the administrators of their estate uncertain whether they are acting in accordance with the deceased’s wishes.  At worst, precious and irreplaceable memories could be lost forever - a heart-breaking prospect

Amongst other things, the Co-op’s report highlights the adverse impact that omitting digital assets is having on those who have been bereaved.  Some 78 per cent of those who have managed a loved one’s online accounts following their death report having experienced difficulties in winding up the account, and a fifth of those found it so difficult, they abandoned their attempts altogether.  

16 per cent of people surveyed for the report said they would want their next of kin to have access to their social accounts given the sentimental value associated with the data.  Even more interesting, 14 per cent of those surveyed stated they would want their families to stay in touch with the online contacts they had built up throughout their lifetime.

There’s a real financial impact, too.  The report found that the average UK adult accumulates personal digital capital such as music, films or books worth £265.  That means for the 500million online accounts and assets that exist throughout the UK, a staggering £17 billion worth of assets could be left ‘floating’ in cyberspace.  

Sam Kershaw, Director of Operations for The Co-operative Funeralcare, said: “Conversations about end of life  are never easy.  However, as we increasingly live and manage our lives online, communicating with a loved one about the accounts you hold and what you would want to happen to them may greatly help should they ever need to access, manage or close accounts on your behalf.” 

But the answer isn’t as straightforward as leaving log-in details and passwords set out in wills. James Antoniou, Head of Wills for the Co-operative Legal Services, acknowledged: “It is important that people are aware that they should never leave online passwords in their will as it can become a public document after death. Individuals can, however, leave details of the online accounts they hold in a sealed letter alongside their will and addressed to their executors to ensure that their digital lives are not missed, or forgotten about, once they have passed away.”

To help consumers plan for manage digital legacies, The Co-operative Funeralcare has developed a guide offering advice and information about managing and protecting online accounts and assets, as well as identifying the accounts of loved ones who have died.  The accompanying infographic can be viewed here.  

Further information is available at www.co-operativefuneralcare.co.uk

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