Recent publicity over a mother’s desire to leave her iPad to her son on her death (eg see here) demonstrates the difficulties of handing over digital assets without the necessary passwords.
Many of us now run our daily lives through a computer, accessing bank and utility accounts online, conducting social interaction through e-mail or media outlets such as Facebook and personal blogs, and using ‘paperless accounts’ to keep track of investments. But without passwords it can be virtually impossible to deal with these assets after a death.
Companies such as Apple strive to ensure that digital information will be kept as securely as possible, regularly upgrading security for cloud storage which will often include personal information and photographs. So unless you pass on complete access information to your next of kin, they will face rigorous and often lengthy procedures before they may be allowed in.
Plus it is not just the digital information which is protected: often a personal computer, phone or tablet will have its own security code, which can prevent a bereaved spouse from taking even the first step. This is how Apple hit the news in 2014: Josh Grant wanted to use the iPad left to him by his mother (having no wish to access any of her personal information) but found he was required to provide proof of his mother’s death, her Will and a Court Order before the tablet would be unlocked.
Lawyers are consequently now advising clients to stipulate in their Will whether their executors are to have access to online accounts, and if so to leave key usernames and passwords to help executors identify and tie up their digital assets and social affairs. The Will itself is not the place to leave sensitive information, being a public document, but including such information in a Letter of Wishes addressed to the Executors seems the best course.
It is also unclear whether specific digital assets can be given away under a Will. Whilst a CD collection is clearly a physical asset capable of being transferred, digital music files arguably fall outside the scope of a Will. Moreover, stores such as i-Tunes may withhold the right to transfer ownership of downloaded music (which is purchased under a revocable licence), so that in the event of death all rights revert to the store. Customers making use of cloud storage for digital assets such as music, photographs and literary works might find that their digital legacy is wiped as their contract with the provider is terminated by death.
Given the inconsistencies it would be helpful for the providers of social media, remote storage and digital assets to agree upon a standard way of accepting instructions after the death of user. Meanwhile it makes perfect sense for every one of us to be sure we leave clear instructions on how to access, and what to do with such media when we are no longer able to do so.
Forever Online: Your Digital Legacy New Scientist
Who owns downloaded music after you die? CNet