What to Leave in Your Digital Legacy

You might want to think about your precious digital assets when you're writing your final requests.

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Apr 24 2014, 12:30pm
Image: Shutterstock

Death might be getting more digital, but our living legacies are lagging behind. When you’re lying in your smart grave after your high-tech autopsy, what happens to the digital life you spent so much of your physical life building? Your digital self—in the form of online accounts, social media, even gaming avatars—doesn’t necessarily die with you, but unless you leave some kind of after-death instructions, it could be thrown into virtual limbo.

The Law Society of England and Wales is urging people to leave a digital legacy after their death, by leaving instructions for their digital assets, just like you’d include physical stuff in a will.

The rules around digital assets aren’t quite as simple as stating a solemn dying wish that you’d like to leave all your ones and zeros to your cat, but there are certain instructions you could consider. I spoke to solicitor Gary Rycroft, who’s a member of the Law Society Wills and Equity Committee, about the different kinds of digital material you might want to pass on.

First up is online banking accounts. The money in them will go into the pot with any other bank accounts, but the problem is that whoever’s dealing with your assets might not even know they exist, and they’re not going to get a paper statement through the post to alert them to your precious digital stash. “You need to be aware of your online investments and somewhere keep a log of them, keep a schedule of what they are, so that whoever’s sorting things out afterwards is able to trace what’s in your estate,” said Rycroft. “Because otherwise assets are at risk of being lost—overlooked.”

But banking is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad online accounts we possess. Personally, I don’t really care what happens to my social media accounts after I’m dead—because I’ll be dead—but I guess some people are more attached to their carefully honed Facebook and Twitter presences, even beyond the grave. Presuming you haven't already arranged to post updates from six feet below, Rycroft suggested you could leave instructions as to what should happen to your profiles, like if they should be completely deactivated, or kept frozen as a sort of memorial page.

Facebook actually updated its own guidance on the matter a couple of months ago; where profiles used to be closed off to friends only after a user died, they’re now kept in the same state as if the person were still alive. “This will allow people to see memorialized profiles in a manner consistent with the deceased person’s expectations of privacy,” the company’s community operations team wrote.

The main point is to leave a list of all your digital accounts—well, the ones you want your parents/kids/significant others to know about—so they don’t go forgotten. But the Law Society advises that you shouldn’t leave passwords as they’ll probably go out of date before they’re needed, and in some cases it might actually be illegal for someone else to access your account.

It gets more complicated with libraries of digital books, music, films, and so on, as in many cases you don’t actually own these; you only license them. “The present position seems to be with books and music that they really are at risk of being lost on death, because you can’t actually pass them on to other people,” Rycroft said. I asked him if you couldn’t just, say, shove them all on one device and pass that on. He said that might be an idea, but the recipient wouldn’t be able to move the files off the device. And again, passing on any passwords could potentially get them in trouble with the Computer Misuse Act 1990. “There’s perhaps more questions than answers in that area, to be honest,” he said.

The same may be true for gaming avatars; do you actually own that character that you spent so many sleepless nights pushing to the highest ranks and levels, or do you just have permission to use it a while? “It would very much depend on what you signed up to in the first place,” said Rycroft. “It all boils down to that bit on screen that we all scroll through and tick, ‘I agree.’”

And when it comes to the million-bitcoin question of cryptocurrencies, Rycroft said he wasn’t able to give specific advice for what you could do to pass them on after death—which seems fair enough, given that the law can barely decide what a bitcoin even is right now. Wayne Parker at Trade Block lists a few ideas of how you might technically be able to pass on a wallet, but aside from copying your whole wallet before you die, they’re not exactly simple; after all, you usually really don’t want anyone else to get that kind of access. 

Rycroft suggested, however, that you at least mention any cryptocurrency assets in your will to cover your bases. The general idea of the Law Society’s announcement, he explained, was to make people—and solicitors—aware that they should be thinking about digital assets when arranging their estate. “If you make a will and name executors then at least you are directing your assets, whether they are in the real world or the virtual world, to your chosen beneficiaries,” he said. 

Of course, if you’re an optimistic transhumanist, then by the time you come to consider your digital legacy, death might not be a thing and your brain might only exist in digital form anyway. But it’s probably best to make plans just in case.