Dealing with Digital Assets in Your Estate

Alan Kay

In today’s world, most people have some kind of digital presence – email, social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.), media accounts (iTunes, Spotify, cloud storage, etc.) or loyalty programs (AirMiles, Aeroplan, Optimum, etc.).  While most of us do not think of our digital presence when planning our estates, there can often be significant personal value (and sometimes monetary as well) in these accounts.  It is important to consider who can access these accounts when you pass away, and what they should do with them.  


Ontario does not have a specific process for accessing and handling digital accounts.  The rules for access vary by the terms of service for each account provider.  Some providers allow you to designate a contact to deal with certain aspects of your account. For example, Facebook allows you to appoint a “legacy contact” who can look after your account, but only after it is memorialized. The legacy contact may be able to download a copy of what you have shared on Facebook but cannot log into your account, change posts, or read your messages. Other service providers vary in their terms of service – from similar types of appointments, to case-by-case decisions on access and handling of the account, to no guidance at all. Some will allow digital assets – like points, music, or photos – to be transferred or downloaded, others do not.


When planning your estate, you should consider who should have access to your digital accounts. Without a Will, a friend or family member must apply to the court to become appointed as your executor (the person responsible for administering your estate) – and may be able to access some or all of your accounts once appointed. A Will gives you the choice over your executor and can allow you to designate the same person (or others) to access each digital account. You can also then confirm this choice with each service provider.


You should also consider how the designated person can access the accounts.  Wil the service provider give access? Does the designated person need to know the access credentials? What about security? You may recall in 2016 Apple Inc. refused to unlock the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone without a Court Order.


You should also consider what you want done with each of your digital accounts.  Some can be “memorialized”, others must be shut down. The important part is to decide what happens to the assets in each account – the photos, music and/or points. For some of us, these online accounts are our largest (or only) source of family photos, videos and correspondence: items that surviving family members often want to keep and pass down.  Some points also have significant value and can be transferred.  A comprehensive estate plan can include specific directions regarding these items, based on your preferences.


The conclusion here is that digital accounts are more than just a fun distraction. They can carry important personal and monetary value and should be included in a comprehensive estate plan.