Creating a digital will

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. Franklin left an enviable legacy both in terms of political history and our understanding of the physical world. Fast-forward 224 years and you wonder if that famous phrase would have ever entered the public domain had Franklin sent it by email, or posted it on Facebook. While death remains inevitable, what happens to our digital assets after we die is uncertain.

Creating a digital will

Your digital estate, for want of a better term, encompasses everything from your iTunes music collection to your Kindle ebook library; it includes the data you store in the cloud, your email archives and online photo galleries – even your social media profiles. If you were to die tomorrow, what would happen to all this stuff?

Digital will checklist

* Ask someone you trust to be the executor of your will.

* Ensure that your will makes a copy of your death certificate available to your executor.

* Create a memorandum of wishes to be given to your executor, containing a list of all the digital assets that you want your executor to deal with after your death, including social networking accounts, photo archives, emails, cloud storage providers and so forth.

* The memorandum should also include a list of passwords and logins that will enable your executor to access your computer, smartphone and the online services holding your digital assets.

*Clearly state your wishes with regards to each service and the data held by them: whether you want accounts deleted, memorialised or shared with named family members and friends.

* Ensure that you have a standard will and testament that’s legally sound, and that the memorandum attached to it is kept up to date with any password changes

As more of modern life is lived digitally, the question isn’t one that will go away. What’s needed is some practical advice on what rights you have, and how you can produce a “digital will” to ensure your loved ones can gain access to the stuff you want them to inherit after you pass away – and to prevent access to data you’d rather they didn’t. It’s time to face up to your mortality and deal with your digital legacy.

Online life after death

The Office for National Statistics calculates that the average wealth of UK households is around £232,000; however, research suggests that you can add £14,932 per person in digital assets to that figure.

The McAfee Digital Assets 2013 study has found that in the UK we each own, on average, more than 3,000 individual digital items such as photos, videos and music.

The same research reveals that 45% of us are “hugely concerned” about losing these assets, but very few people have actually stopped to think about what happens to them after we die.

James Norris has put some thought into the social networking side of things, founding the DeadSocial service. DeadSocial enables users to create a series of messages – videos, photos and text – which form part of a “social media will” and are published on the user’s social networks once they have died (currently only Facebook and Twitter are supported).

This is merely a notification of death, however – social networking from beyond the grave, if you like. What about actually accessing data after a loved one has died?

“The way in which people are able to pass on digital content and media varies from platform to platform, based on a number of factors,” Norris told PC Pro. “When an online platform is informed that a user has passed away, it generally evaluates each case manually.

“Each organisation has its own internal process and policy addressing accounts of the deceased. Being a family member doesn’t automatically mean that you’re passed over media, data or social media site control.”

Mortal combat

In fact, most services have very similar terms of service. Amazon clearly states that the “purchase and download of digital content from, including content from the Kindle Store, is associated with the account used to make the original purchase. As a result, Kindle content cannot be shared like a physical book.”

This basically means that you can leave your Kindle to someone else after you die (you own the hardware after all), but they won’t have any rights over the Kindle’s contents. Don’t expect them to be able to restore purchases should any technical problems occur, or transfer the books to another device.

Apple takes much the same position when it comes to iTunes, stating that “the iTunes Products are provided to you by way of a licence only” – so it’s giving you permission to use the material, rather than granting ownership.

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