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Bereaved families “cut off” from digital assets, study reveals

Families often find it hard or impossible to access the digital assets of loved ones after they die, a major study has revealed.

The research, published in collaboration with the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and Queen Mary University of London, recommends “urgent reforms” to help executors access the online accounts required to complete probate.

According to the report, families are often “cut off” from digital assets, such as social media accounts, cloud storage, cryptocurrency wallets, and emails, when loved ones die or become incapacitated – causing significant “distress” and “frustration” during probate.

The survey of 500 professional inheritance advisors found that six in 10 (60 per cent) have dealt with questions from clients about digital assets, while one in four (25 per cent) have had clients who have experienced difficulties accessing digital assets of a family member.

But with digital assets becoming an increasingly common part of estate planning and administration, advisors expect queries to increase to 90 per cent in the near future.

The most common queries related to the ‘big five’ digital platforms, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Dropbox, with one in five clients citing difficulties with uncooperative service providers in situations where accounts cannot be accessed.

Commenting on the survey, author Dave Michels said legislators “must put in place much clearer rules on property rights and rights of access by personal representatives”.

“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,” he said.

Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel at STEP, added: “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.”

For help and advice with related matters, please get in touch with our later life planning and probate team today.

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