A project completed by STEP and Queen Mary University of London has identified the need for urgent reform to give families better access to the digital assets of deceased loved ones.
Items such as social media accounts, photos and emails have become a common part of estate planning and administration in recent years. A new survey of 500 professional inheritance advisers found that nearly 60 per cent have dealt with questions from clients about digital assets and 90 per cent expect this to increase in future. Clients most commonly asked about social media, email, cryptocurrencies, and cloud storage. The top five providers most mentioned by clients regarding digital assets stored in the cloud were Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Dropbox.
The results also show that nearly a quarter of the respondents had clients who have experienced difficulties accessing digital assets of a family member, causing significant distress and frustration in many cases. Over 85% of respondents agreed that cloud providers should provide better solutions for managing access to digital assets stored in the cloud after death or incapacity
The problem is compounded by a lack of legal clarity when it comes to property rights. A study cited in the report from December 2018 identified that 85% of standard contracts for consumer cloud services did not explicitly address what happens to customer accounts
or data stored in the cloud when the customer passes away.
One in five respondents also mentioned an uncooperative attitude from service providers in situations where accounts cannot be accessed. According to the report authors, this shows not just the need for legal reform, but also for cooperation with cloud providers to find practical solutions.
Some small steps are being made. In June Apple announced they would be launching a feature that enables their users to pass on information stored by them following their death. The digital legacy feature will be part of iOS 15, due to be launched in September 2021. But over 85 per cent of respondents said that cloud providers should provide better solutions for managing access to digital assets stored in the cloud after death or incapacity.
Calling on service providers and government to engage on the issues, Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel at STEP, said:
“In just a few short years, digital assets have become fundamental to many aspects of our lives. From sentimental items like photos and social media content, to private information like confidential emails, passwords and medical records, these items are now just as important to our lives and identities as traditional assets.
“Family members need to manage loved ones’ affairs after their death so must have access to financial and other information stored on computers and online cloud services. But an inability to obtain access is increasingly a cause of significant stress and concern.
“The need for effective solutions to this problem is becoming ever more critical. STEP and its members want to see better engagement from governments and service providers globally so that families can plan for their futures with certainty and clarity.”
Dave Michels of the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London said:
“Digital assets can have great sentimental value, so it’s important that people have legal certainty as to what they can pass on after death. I know I’d want my wife to access our family photos stored in my iCloud account, after I die.”
Professor Christopher Millard of the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London said:
“The Law Commission of England and Wales is currently reviewing the property status of digital assets under English law. We look forward to their recommendations and we hope that they will address the urgent need to update succession law for the 21st century.”
Download the report here: https://www.step.org/research-reports/digital-assets-call-action