How much are you worth online? And how do you ensure your beneficiaries get their proper slice of your virtual estate?

Death 2.0

The subject of digital wills seems to bring out the black humour in headline writers: “How to log out permanently” ran a recent piece in Forbes India. “Death 2.0” screams Wired. But given the entrenched role that cyberspace now plays in our everyday lives, the question of what happens to our online property when we die is increasingly pressing – particularly given the increasing monetary (and sentimental) value of virtual assets. Not to mention posthumous reputation: “My digital identities are extensions of my real world identity,” argues one blogger. “I’d like them to be dealt with in particular ways.”

Digital archives

So how much are you worth in zeroes and ones? A recent survey conducted by the Chinese local newspaper, Southern Metropolis Weekly, found that a fifth of respondents believed they had digital assets over 5,000 yuan (just under $800). That may be the tip of the iceberg. One ordinary working woman, profiled in a recent UK investigation, was flabbergasted to discover that the hard assets in her ‘digital attic’ amounted to £9,000 once the value of her online music collection (by far the biggest outlay), ebooks, online magazine subscriptions, downloaded movies and apps were tallied up. Indeed, in Britain alone, holdings of digital music may already be worth over £9 billion.

The advent of online ‘virtual’ currencies has complicated matters further. The value of gaming credits – not to mention online gaming characters and avatars – adds up. A recent correspondent to Spears Wealth Management estimated that one of the gaming ‘characters’ he’d created could be worth as much as $14,000 if traded. Given the efforts of companies like Facebook to tempt ever more of us into using digital currencies when making online transactions growing numbers of people may find themselves in the same boat.

Individuals, of course, aren’t the only ones affected. Since digital assets may also include software, websites, downloaded content, data subscriptions etc, companies are also increasingly getting bogged down in posthumous ownership issues. Does that valuable piece of IP belong to the company, or to the deceased individual? And who exactly has access to which vital account? The contents of your bank account are not digital. But access is invariably controlled digitally. If your finance director keeled over tomorrow, would you really have a handle on the day-to-day finances?

Beyond the grave: preserving your digital legacy

Make an inventory of your virtual assets

Complete a spreadsheet listing all your digital assets including profiles, email addresses, devices and accounts. In each case, list your user name, type of digital media, and state what your wishes are in relation to it. For security purposes, keep passwords in a separate file.

Make a hard copy

Remember that while physical wills are legally binding (even if written on bizarre materials), digitally-written wills are not in most territories – and may require a major change in statutory law to become binding. As Indian Supreme Court lawyer, Gopal Sankaranarayana observes. “If a digital will is to have sanctity, there has to be an amendment in succession laws.”

Write a digital will

Check out the policy of your online providers for what happens to your assets after death. If your wishes differ, make it plain who you would like to have access to what account. Appoint digital executors to gain access to accounts and either shut them down or pass them over to relevant heirs. For instance, you might choose to send your PayPal credentials to your spouse, and your LinkedIn contacts to co-workers. Ensure executors know where to access password details. If you have multiple identities online, using a company like Legacy Locker may help with the logistics, but you need to satisfy yourself on questions like security and long-term viability.

Legal grey area

The problem for users is that digital bequeathing remains a legal grey area in jurisdictions globally – testamentary law just hasn’t kept up. “Virtual assets have little legal protection in China,” observes the Chinese news service The same is true everywhere from New York and London to Mumbai. As one Indian pundit observes: “No-one denies the need for digital wills, but no-one seems to be doing much about it either.”

The situation is complicated by the failure of internet service providers to agree an accepted procedure for account management after death – and to make these explicit in terms and conditions. Because accounts are governed by contracts with individuals, however, most are decidedly unwilling to unlock email and social networking accounts after death. All email and data on Apple’s iCloud service, for instance, are deleted posthumously; and Google maintains a stringent policy on its gmail accounts. “Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user’s email will be made only after a careful review,” it states, adding ominously: “The application…is a lengthy process”. Facebook, by contrast, allows relatives to close an account or turn it into a memorial page.

Case law is beginning to test some of these rules – particularly in the US where, in a notable test case, the bereaved parents of a US marine won access to his Yahoo! account. Five US states have since enacted laws giving executives control over the social-networking profiles of deceased users.

Your electronic afterlife

But what of individual privacy? While most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid at allowing their heirs to peruse their music or film collections, many would baulk at giving them unfettered access to email or social networking accounts. Hence the importance of making it explicitly clear who should have access to what (see box).

The market has already responded. In recent years, a glut of companies have sprung up to facilitate the transfer (or withholding) of your digital treasures. Companies like Legacy Locker, Entrustet, and Deathswitch, will allow you to upload personal log-in details and passwords to all your accounts, which can then be released to your executors – along with your instructions on who should see what. These provide a useful service, but they’re not perfect. Although they claim to be safe repositories, you may have concerns about security and (given the volatile market place they inhabit) longevity. There’s not much point in entrusting your digital afterlife to a company that goes bust.

The law in this area continues to evolve. But, in the meantime, here are our tips for safeguarding your digital legacy (see box above).