The immortal nature of cyber assets   

September 1, 2018

Richard Marshall, associate solicitor in Hay & Kilner Law Firm’s private client team, reveals why addressing your digital footprint should be part of your estate planning

In 1986, Queen asked the question ‘Who Wants to Live Forever?’ in one of their lesser known tracks on their soundtrack to the film Highlander.

While 32 years later, death is still one of life’s only certainties, our online presence could arguably persist long after our mortal existence.

Thoughts often turn to social media in this regard, and the sentimental value attached to a library of photographs and happy memories, but the rise in financial cyber assets such as PayPal, Ebay and online betting accounts, together with the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies, pose more of a concern on death.

With the potential for significant wealth to be amassed in such accounts, it will be imperative for anyone dealing with an estate to know that the assets exist and how to access them.

Banks, building societies and investment houses will generally provide some form of physical paper trail, such as statements or annual valuations, but the existence of cyber assets may not be as obvious.

Requests to third party intermediaries such as PayPal, Ebay and online betting accounts to search their databases for deceased loved ones’ details may reveal accounts held in their names.

However, direct investments in something such as cryptocurrency, or contracts made by blockchain, may be more difficult to locate, as their very nature cuts out such third-party intermediaries.

If executors and administrators can overcome this first obstacle, the second concern of access must then be considered. Without usernames, passwords or private keys, accessing assets held within cyber accounts may be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

One way around this would be to keep a secure note of all login details, passwords and private keys for cyber assets, and for the more tech minded, there are third parties who offer a platform for securely storing online login details.

These accounts obviously also require login details to enable access, which again raises the same problem of knowing about the storage facility and its login details.

It’s possible that storing the login details either in physical form or electronically with a third party may be a breach of these accounts’ terms of use, so all people holding them should ensure they know whether this is the case for their individual arrangements.

If access to the cyber assets is achieved, consideration as to how the assets can be transferred or assigned to the beneficiaries of the estate should also be given.

The international nature of websites can cause some problems in this regard, as can the infancy of some of the technology and a related lack of any policy on how assets will be dealt with on death.

Questions can also arise as to what the deceased actually owned, and whether they had a tangible right to the asset or a mere licence to use it, as can often be the case with, for example, downloaded libraries of digital music.

Hay & Kilner’s expert Private Client team can advise on all aspects of estate planning, including the increasingly complex area of cyber asset ownership on death.

Hay & Kilner
For further information or to speak to a member of the team, call 0191 232 8345

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