Unreal estate

    Five tips for setting your digital house in order

    By Lewis Kelly for Thought Box on July 21, 2017

    When you die, who will inherit your iTunes library? What about your travel reward miles? The photos and videos you’ve stored in the cloud?

    Sure, no one likes to think about, let alone talk about, death. But these are questions worth asking in the technological age.

    Stacy Maurier, ’96 BA, ’97 BA(NativeStu), ’00 LLB, a lawyer specializing in estate law, helps clients figure out how to pass their digital assets on to their successors. She’s seen hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of online media and customer reward points get frozen behind digital locks in perpetuity because of poor planning or unfair laws.

    Often, the last legal word belongs to a digital service’s end user licence agreement — the long spiel of legalese you skip past and then officially vouch you’ve read when installing software and the like. The law, Maurier says, is behind the curve on this.

    Maurier says the best hope for consistency and sanity in this area is that Apple, Google and the other tech titans will uniformly agree on the inheritability of digital assets.

    Until such a bout of enlightened co-operation occurs, here are five of Maurier’s top tips for ensuring that your data is left safely in the hands of your heirs.

    1: Read the fine print

    One of Maurier’s clients had spent $10,000 in Apple’s iTunes store. Naturally, the client wanted to include this trove of tunes in their will. But when Maurier looked into the matter, she had to deliver some unpleasant news.

    “In Apple’s eyes, when you die their contract with you is over,” she says. In fact, according to Apple’s licence agreement, if you will your iPad to your friend with your password, you’re actually committing a crime.

    No one wants to spend their life reading fine print. But if you put a substantial amount of money into a digital service or product, the effort is worth it. Each digital asset is governed by a different set of rules. For example, Shoppers Optimum, a loyalty reward program operated by Shoppers Drug Mart, can be included in a will — but only if the member’s points are donated to a charity. 

    2: Use password management software

    Security experts advise us to change all our passwords. All the time. Forever. But when you think of all of your digital logins — tablet, email, social media accounts, online banking and shopping — following that advice can quickly seem like a full-time job. Plus, it makes it hard for anyone else to access your various accounts — including your executor. Maurier tells her clients to use password management software (such as LastPass or Passpack), something that will store and automatically change and input passwords for all of your online accounts.

    Once you’ve picked your software, create a password for your account on that service that’s really hard to guess. Then, Maurier says, write it down, put it somewhere safe and make sure it’s noted in your will. (She’s a fan of safety deposit boxes for storage. For those who don’t want to buy one, she recommends putting important documents in the freezer. If your house burns down, the freezer is the last thing to go.)

    3: Have important photographs printed

    According to market research firm KeyPoint Intelligence, a staggering 1.2 trillion digital photographs will be taken in 2017, way up from 2011’s measly 400 billion. So how can you ensure your snapshots and Instagram posts are available to posterity?

    Maurier has, perhaps, a counterintuitive answer: print the pictures.

    “Technology changes so fast,” she says. “When I was in university we burned our pictures to DVDs. I now own four computers and none of them has a DVD drive.” While those photos aren’t lost forever, they are more difficult to get to.

    It’s easy to imagine continued technological evolution will make it similarly challenging to access photos stored on a cellphone, a secure digital card or even in the amorphous data cloud. That’s why Maurier advises having any photos you want to pass on to loved ones printed and stored in an album as a backup.

    4: Use flexible language

    Aeroplan, a customer rewards program founded by Air Canada in 1984, is currently facing an uncertain future after the airline announced plans to cut the cord. Aeroplan might survive — the changes won’t take effect until 2020, so it has some time to find a solution — but it might not. If the program goes belly up, Maurier says, the odds that all those Aeroplan miles you stockpiled and want to will to your loved one might simply disappear.

    So, using flexible language in your will, says Maurier, can offer some security when it comes to the relentless pace of change in the digital sphere, and it can help to accommodate a digital asset’s changing services, features and even its very existence.

    5: Consider leaving some digital assets out

    On the subject of leaving things out, Maurier has witnessed many clients come to unwelcome realizations about their deceased loved ones through their digital assets. The main culprit here is access to an email account, which can sometimes divulge more about us than we intend. Coming to this knowledge while coming to terms with someone’s passing can make a hard situation still more difficult for loved ones.

    When it comes to your digital legacy, a little judicious censorship might be in everyone’s interest.


    Stacy Maurier is a UAlberta law grad and the founder of Estate Connection, a law firm specializing in inheritance.

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