Why Executors Worry about… Digital Assets

Do you know what digital estate assets are?

As an estate trustee, you have to secure estate property. This can include protecting valuable digital property.

Here are some digital estate dos and don’ts for executors.

Electronic or digital information can be a digital asset. It can be stored in various electronic devices such as hard drives, computers, tablets and cellphones. Information can be stored in memory devices, networks, online or in the cloud.

As an executor, you are required to collect estate assets. You will need to include devices with digital or electronic information.

Digital assets may have value. This can include:

  • emotional (family photos, videos, music)
  • financial (business websites, domains, blogs)
  • creative (copyrights, unpublished manuscripts, musical compositions)

It may be difficult to distinguish what is valuable.

How Do Executors Get Access

Get a head start with a list of a person’s usual websites, user names and passwords. This assumes the person who asked you to be executor can prepare a list.

You may need to hire a tech wizard to gain access to the deceased’s digital world.
Social media sites may be controlled by user agreements. These may dictate that a user has no property rights. The user only has a license and access to the network. The user agreement may also specify that a password is non-transferable.

The legal situation is not clear for executors. Most social media sites rely on their user agreement. These prohibit access and can deny estate trustees the right to deal with content.

Digital asset legislation, if it exists, varies by jurisdiction. Some areas have statutory rules. As yet, no uniform laws exist to create a code of conduct.

Executors have little guidance from court decisions. Few cases have ended up in court over digital property.

A clear understanding of your executor’s rights and responsibilities may not be possible.

You, as executor, may not know how to deal with digital accounts. You may not be able to identify what electronic files should be closed or maintained.

You must, however, take control of online financial information.

Online identity theft is common but difficult to detect.

Executors may not find paper bank or credit card statements. Utility accounts may be preauthorized and paid from electronic accounts.

Be aware that you may need to stop or close online bank, credit card or e-trading accounts. These personal financial resources need to be protected.

Even emails and voicemails may need to be examined. These may require access usernames and passwords.

Reward and loyalty programs for airline, shopping and membership rewards may exist. These may be non-transferable or transferable within a limited time, subject to specific conditions.

Common Questions without Answers

How should executors deal with online photos, videos and materials? Should they make copies of online materials?

Should domain registrations, website and blogs be preserved?

Will the business website need to be maintained?

What about membership and online subscription lists?

I welcome your thoughts on the best way for executors to deal with digital assets.

Read my related post “Do You Need a Digital Estate Plan?” at Money.ca.

About Ed Olkovich

I am Toronto estate lawyer, author and editor of Carswell’s legal guide Compensation and Duties of Estate Trustees, Guardians and Attorneys. I am a Certified Specialist in Estates and Trusts law. I have handled estate disputes and probate problems since 1978. © 2014