The Death Taboo: What’s Your Digital Legacy?

Good news: we are all living longer. Over the past twenty years life expectancy has risen significantly, with the average life expectancy in England now over 80.

Bad news: the longer we live, the more data we store electronically and the more thought we should be giving to what might happen to it when we’re no longer around.

Naturally, some of this data is extremely personal or valuable to us (like photos, contacts, emails and documents). However, unlike the processes that come into effect for our physical assets when we die, the processes and laws surrounding electronic data are much less developed. There is also a significant disconnect developing between how the physical device (say an iPhone, tablet or computer) and the data on it would pass in the event of your death.

I wrote about “digital legacies” in a previous article last year (The Death Taboo) and with the help of a colleague of mine, Matt Cowen, we have dug a little deeper into how some of the more well-known online platforms are dealing with our ever growing digital footprint when we die.

1. Data in “the cloud”:

There are now countless services that offer online storage for your data, allowing instant access via countless devices.

  • Android phones/Google Drive are leading the charge on this front.

Google’s ‘Inactive Account Manager’ allows you to select up to ten people to take control of your account if there has been no activity for a set period of time.

With a bit of planning then, it should be possible to allow your family or executors to access the files stored.

  • Apple’s iCloud policy is not so flexible or developed.

A recent addition to their terms and conditions states:

“Unless otherwise required by law, you agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted.”

With that said, again Apple treat requests for access on a case by case basis, so it may be possible to obtain access to copy across the data.

2. Streaming Services

For streaming services like Spotify or Netflix, the answer is quite simple: as the consumer you do not own any of the content, you just have a licence to use it during your lifetime – so that licence will end on your death and along with it, access to their service.

As soon as Spotify or Netflix are told about your death, all songs, films and playlists in that account will be deleted.

3. iTunes

iTunes is a slightly different beast to a streaming service. You purchase specific songs, albums and films, crafting a virtual library of digital media.

You, like many of my friends, may have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds on building these libraries of music and films.

The problem is that whilst iTunes allows you to build these libraries (at significant cost) you are again just buying a right to use that song or film, which expires when you do!

The result being that Apple would be perfectly within their rights to delete/block all of the content as soon as they are informed of your death. Happily, there seem to be more and more stories of Apple allowing relatives to gain control of an account in these situations but it is by no means guaranteed.

4. Kindle (and Amazon account)

As with iTunes, your e-book library (and Amazon account) is another that will die when you do (or as soon as Amazon are notified of your death).

Unlike Apple, I have not come across any similar stories of Amazon agreeing to transfer the library across to another member of the family.

Unlike the data on your Kindle, the device itself is yours, so it will pass along with all your other possessions, under the terms of your will (which you should also be thinking about if you do not have one, or have not looked at it for more than seven years!).

5. iPads and iPhones

As with a Kindle, the device itself can be passed under the terms of your will, along with the rest of your possessions, but what about the data, contacts and photos that are stored on them but not otherwise backed up?

The short answer is that in the absence of you having shared your PIN number with someone else, Apple will not allow you to obtain access to these devices without first wiping them (you may remember that this was the problem faced by the FBI last year).

Even if a loved one has been allowed access via a finger print, it seems this is not guaranteed to solve the problem either: most devices require the pin to be entered after restarting.

6. Emails

There are too many providers to cover here, but selecting a few:

  • Gmail: the ‘Inactive Account Manager’ discussed above for Android phones also applies to Gmail, so with a bit of planning there should be no issues here.
  • Yahoo: Yahoo’s terms state that no content in the user’s email account is transferable, even upon the death of the user. It seems, then, that Yahoo will not provide anyone with passwords/access to your email account if you die.
  • (including Hotmail, Outlook, Windowslive, MSN): like Google, Microsoft have also taken significant steps to smooth the way. They offer a ‘Microsoft Next of Kin’ process, which allows for the release of all emails (including attachments and address book) on your death. Access is not given to the account directly, instead the data is provided on a DVD.

The above only scratches the surface of this subject but, the more it is discussed, hopefully the more your thoughts (and those of the companies involved) will develop to create simple, joined up systems that activate when we die.

As Benjamin Franklin put it all those years ago: “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”, so armed with the (hopefully unsurprising!) news that we will all expire at some point, the more we can do to plan for it, the easier life will be for those left behind.

Tim Snaith is a partner in the private client team at Winckworth Sherwood. He advises high-net worth families and entrepreneurs on their wills, estate planning and probate matters.

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