The Value of Digital Assets and Why It Should Not Be Ignored in Estate Planning

Your house, children, jewelry and art, these are all the typical items a person will think about when planning their Estate.  However, what is often forgot about is a person’s digital assets. In a report on digital assets, Kimberly Whaley, defines digital assets as digital photos, word and excel documents, blogs, iTunes collection, tweets, or even Airmiles points. A report by Deloitteestimates that by 2020, the average Canadian will have accumulated over $10,000 in digital assets. Yet, BMO Wealth Institute finds over 57% of Canadians have failed to plan for their digital assets in their estate plans. With anincreasing trend towards the digital way of life, it is key that one keeps their digital assets in mind when planning their Estate. This post attempts to demonstrate why digital assets are so important, and what steps can and should be taken to protect ones digital assets after death.
What is a Digital Asset and Why Should I Care
Whaley distinguishes between digital assets and digital accounts. As defined above, digital assets include any digital file a person owns. Similar to the physical and financial assets typically provided for in a Will, digital assets hold both sentimental and monetary value.   
Think about all of those photos stored on your computer or hard drive. Previously the boxes of physical photos could easily be found in the basement. But with digital photos, there needs to be clear instructions on how to find and access them if you wish to pass them on. What about your Facebook page? After death do you want your page shut down, or left up as a digital memorial site for your loved ones to visit?
On the monetary end of things, one simply has to think of Bitcoin, the first decentralized digital currency. Currently, the total value of Bitcoin supply in circulation is over $100 billion Without taking Bitcoin into consideration in estate planning, one could be simply throwing away real value. The same goes for loyalty programs such as Airmiles or cash back credit card accounts. 
Unlike digital assets, which are the digital files themselves, digital accounts are how one accesses those files. According to Whaley, digital accounts can be separated into three categories:

  1. accounts that contain virtual currency that could be transferred to your heirs and include a PayPal account, loyalty program accounts such as credit card accounts with cash back, and Bitcoin;
  2. accounts containing virtual property such as Kobo and iTunes accounts. For these accounts people only own a licence to use the digital files and therefore do not actually “own” them; and
  3. accounts containing information likely of personal or commercial interest such as personal email accounts, your Facebook page, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

When planning for your digital assets it is important to always take note of your digital accounts since without access to the digital accounts your digital assets may be subject to its provider’s terms of service. A further obstacle is most account providers will err on the side of caution when it comes to granting access to non-account holders out of fear of breaching Canadian privacy laws. What does this mean? Well, for example, without explicit instruction in a will, grieving family members may be facing a legal battle against big businesses, simply for access to a deceased’s Facebook, email or blog. Recently, in the United States, there have been a number of cases where grieving families embroiled in legal battles with Facebook over access to a deceased family member’s Facebook account.[1] 

What Should You Do

Currently, the law says little to nothing with respect to digital asset management after death. This means it is up to you to take steps to protect your digital assets and accounts. The following steps may assist in this process:

  • Identify all of your digital assets and accounts. This includes documenting the location of all mobile devices, computers and flash drives;
  • Instruct exactly what you want done with each digital asset and account. You may want to leave this responsibility with your chosen executor, or appoint a separate trustee who will be responsible for managing your digital assets;
  • Provide access to your chosen appointed person. This can be done by leaving a password-protected list of digital assets and digital accounts. An online password manager such as LastPass  or 1Password  may assist in this step; and
  • Update your digital assets and digital accounts as often as possible.

One final point is that it is important not to list any passwords to digital assets and accounts within the actual Will. The reason for this is that if, and when your estate goes through probate, the court process by which a Will is proven valid or invalid, the contents of the Will may become public record. Thus, putting your digital assets and accounts at risk.

[1]Stassen v Facebook is a case from Wisconsin whereby the Stassen;s 21 year-old son committed suicide.  The Stassen’s wanted to access their son’s Facebook and Gmail accounts.  Facebook refused to release any information, citing concerns over breaching their client’s ownership rights.  Facebook refused to disclose their son’s personal account information even after a court order declared the parents the heirs to their son’s estate.