Estate planning in a digital era

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There have been numerous stories in the news in the news recently about the ownership of online and digital assets when someone dies. With more than 1 million mobile devices and more than 280 million social media accounts in the world, it's no surprise that this is becoming a bigger issue. The big question lies in the question of ownership, not of the device itself but the information stored on it.

Music purchased from an online store such as iTunes only provides the purchaser with a licence to use the information so it cannot be transferred to a beneficiary. Digital photos and videos will depend on whether they are original or downloaded from someone else's website or Facebook page. If they aren't original they may not have any authority to pass this information to any beneficiary or purchaser of the device.

If the deceased did own the rights to any software or downloads on the device, those rights may not automatically be transferred with the ownership of the device itself. One example would be with intellectual property for a novel written by the deceased that is saved on a device. The deceased may have given the associated intellectual property rights to one person but left the device itself to someone else. The intellectual property would need to be copied and then deleted before the device can be handed over.

Additionally, if any intellectual property saved was created during the course of the deceased's employment, the employer may own the intellectual property rights. This needs to be transferred and deleted before the device is given to the beneficiary or sold.

Computing devices may also uncover if the deceased had online banking accounts, PayPal or gambling accounts not currently part of the estate. This information about other funds or debts needs to be taken into account when dealing with the estate.

The deceased's personal representative will need to review the information on the deceased's computing device and take necessary action to ensure all the laws are complied with. If the devices are protected using passwords, then they may need to enlist a suitable expert to assist with gaining access.

A previous blog post we have written on Facebook has raised the question of online passwords. The way to make sure all online accounts, whether social media, email or bank accounts, can be accessed after death, is to make sure that passwords are included (and kept up to date) as part of the documentation when planning your estate.

We can assist with all areas of estate planning and estate administration so please contact us if you have any questions about anything raised in this article.