By Maeve MacGlinchey.
These days, your assets will most likely comprise of both ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’ property, the latter being digital assets such as online accounts, digital photographs, and virtual currency. Just as it is important to provide for what will happen to your ‘physical’ assets in the event of your death, it is also imperative to make provision for what is to happen to your digital assets, from collecting and transferring any money or usable credits to your heirs to closing online accounts. While South Africa has yet to legislate on the administration of digital assets after death, we can take guidance from other jurisdictions in how we deal with the winding up of your digital estate.
Digital Assets Explained
Whilst the topic of digital assets is much discussed and debated, a universal definition of “digital asset” has yet to be agreed upon. A digital asset has been argued to be “a collection of binary data which is self-contained, uniquely identifiable and has a value” and includes, among other things, your social media accounts, email accounts, digital content such as photographs and audio stored in digital format, virtual currency, as well as domain names and software. The two primary issues when dealing with digital assets is the transferability thereof and the access thereto.
Transferability of Digital Assets
Generally, all digital assets that you own and that are capable of being transferred will form part of your estate when you die. Transferable digital assets include things like funds in online accounts, virtual currency, and digital content that you own. The reality, however, is that the majority of your digital assets will not be able to be transferred to your heirs as you do not own these assets, but simply have a licence to use them during your lifetime. The most common examples of this are your email and social media accounts but also includes things like subscription accounts and domain names you have licensed during your lifetime.
While you are not able to transfer your social media accounts upon death, many platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, have created so-called ‘legacy schemes’ which allow you to identify a ‘trusted’ contact who is entitled to either memorialise or terminate your account upon your death. This type of scheme allows you to set limitations on what the designated ‘legacy contact’ is permitted to access, thus ensuring your privacy after death. Other social media platforms, such as Twitter, will simply terminate the deceased’s account should someone provide the platform with a certified copy of the deceased user’s death certificate. It is important to familiarise yourself with the procedures in place with the social media platforms you use as these vary from platform to platform.
Access to Digital Assets
In order to ensure that your executor can properly wind up your estate, you should make an inventory of your digital assets, including the specific assets you have, how one can access them, and how they should be disposed of. This inventory should not form part of your will as this becomes a public document upon registration with Master of the High Court after your death. Rather, you should simply indicate in your will where your executor can locate your digital asset inventory.
In terms of password access to digital assets, it is recommended that you use a password manager such as LastPass or Dashlane to store your passwords and simply record the master password in your digital asset inventory. This allows you to routinely change your passwords without having to amend your digital asset inventory upon every password change.
Failing to provide information about and access to your digital assets upon your death will inevitably create unnecessary complications for your executor and loved ones. It is recommended that you consult with an expert to ensure that your digital assets will be properly administered after your death.