What needs to change?

As digital technology becomes integral to our personal lives, our digital possessions are becoming increasingly important. When we create an online account with service providers like Apple, Google and Facebook, we agree to terms and conditions that emphasise data privacy. Yet many people do not plan for what will happen if they are no longer around or able to make decisions about such accounts and other digital assets.

There are often circumstances where family or loved ones would need or want to access a digital account when a loved one dies or becomes incapacitated. For example:

  • They might have sentimental value such as photos, videos, emails.
  • The online content might need to be controlled to protect the privacy of the deceased.
  • Access might be required to obtain passwords and login details in order to safeguard the deceased’s financial property.

However, in a recent survey of estate-planning professionals, nearly a quarter of respondents said their clients frequently have difficulties accessing the digital assets of a deceased or incapacitated person. This causes great distress and frustration.

Nearly 60% of respondents to our survey had dealt with questions from clients about digital assets. More than 90% of respondents thought that client demand for advice about digital assets would increase, with over 60% predicting a large increase. The need for effective solutions is therefore becoming ever more critical.

Everyone who is affected – from governments and service providers, to professional bodies like STEP and members of the public – need to work together to fully address this issue because of the distress it causes.


What are we calling for?

STEP and its members are engaging with governments and service providers globally to produce industry solutions and best practice that will help families plan for their futures with certainty and clarity. We are calling for the following changes:

1). Every service provider to provide, and encourage users to make use of, a comprehensive legacy tool

Some service providers have introduced useful functions that allow you to nominate someone to deal with your account when you die. You can find out more about these here and we recommend that you and your loved ones make use of these.

However, these tools can vary in their functionality and usefulness, are relatively unknown and require people to plan ahead. That is why we are trying to raise awareness of them through this website.

2). Every service provider to have a clause that allows access to a nominated person within its terms and conditions

If people have not planned ahead, the situation can become more difficult, sometimes requiring court orders or other legal obstacles which can be costly and time consuming. STEP would like every server provider to include a clause that allows access to a nominated person within its term and conditions.

3). Legislation in every country that allows access to a nominated person in the appropriate circumstances.

Where service providers have not introduced the appropriate terms and conditions to allow access via its service agreement, then there should be legislation in each country that would override this, and provide a default position for access.

There are some encouraging signs that this is happening, including legislation such as the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) in the United States.

The Act permits online service companies to provide certain people with full or partial access to online content at their discretion. This is one way to approach this problem. However this type of legislation is not widely implemented in other countries.

There are also positive signs in the UK, with the Law Commission of England and Wales’ project in relation to digital assets in 2021. Yet there needs to be wider efforts and greater cross-border collaboration in order to achieve consistent international standards.

The law needs to stay up to date in all countries to ensure that individuals enjoy the same rights and freedoms to control their digital assets as they do their financial assets.


How you can help

Create awareness: Most people haven’t even considered what will happen to their digital assets when they die. A recent YouGov survey of 2,000 members of the public in the UK showed that while 64% of respondents considered what happened to their sentimental digital assets to be important to them, 57% had not made any plans at all. Most people don’t think about it until it’s too late. We need to change that: share our video and this website with your loved ones and help us raise awareness about this important issue.

Share your stories: If you’ve had a difficult experience gaining access to your loved ones’ digital assets, let us know. Your story can really bring to life the issues people are facing and demonstrate the shortcomings of the current tools and laws in this area. This can inform the development of appropriate solutions.

Call for change: Governments and large corporations will only take notice if enough people call for change. This problem isn’t going to go away – the issues will only increase as more and more aspects of our lives become digital. If a service provider you rely on does not currently offer legacy tools, we would encourage you to ask them to introduce them, or consider swapping to a provider that does.