Who gets your digital accounts when you die?

If the deceased’s will doesn’t mention his or her digital assets, the person who inherits the estate may run into trouble trying to access these accounts.
If the deceased’s will doesn’t mention his or her digital assets, the person who inherits the estate may run into trouble trying to access these accounts. Photo: iStock.

A situation that few want to think about but that is occurring more often as we are increasingly more reliant on technology is: who inherits your digital assets (including account and password information) after you die?

Logically, it should be the person(s) to whom you designate your estate, which often is either a spouse and/or family member.

If the deceased’s will doesn’t make mention of his or her digital assets, the person who inherits your estate may run into trouble when trying to access these accounts.

Such is the case of Peggy Bush, a widow from Victoria, B.C. who wanted to access her husband’s password so she could play games on an iPad. When she and her daughter attempted to get access to the password from Apple, they were told to get a court order.

Though Apple was provided with a will from Bush’s deceased husband that stated that the entire estate was left to his wife, as well as a notarized death certificate, she still wasn’t provided with her deceased husband’s password.

CBC’s Go Public investigated and Apple apologized, calling the situation a “misunderstanding”, and is now working with Bush’s daughter to resolve the issue. Still, the issue goes beyond this one incident and touches on what happens to a person’s digital assets when they pass away.

In Canada, there is currently no legislation regarding the disposal of or rights and succession to digital assets.

Adding to that problem, ownership of digital assets is also not clear-cut. Certain digital accounts have controlled access. While the person owns the account, the online service provider controls access. Often companies use provisions that restrict access to the account by anyone other than the client, which is why almost all digital accounts require usernames and passwords.

Then there are those online service providers who state in their terms of use and privacy agreements that the deceased does not have ownership right over their online material, which effectively puts the kibosh on transferring digital asset ownership.

What can you do to ensure your digital assets and access to them go to the person you want designated? Including one’s digital assets in estate planning documents such as wills and powers of attorney is a good way to minimize issues around digital account inheritance. However, that should be done with the aid of a wills and estate planning lawyer.

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