Protecting the digital afterlife

Oct 08, 2013, 03:15 IST | Fatema Pittalwala

Life is becoming increasingly cyber for many of us. We invest a lot in our online presence -- but how do we ensure that it remains secure, in our lifetime and afterwards?

When someone passes away, their family members have to both deal with the loss as well as look after that person’s assets. Nowadays, along with physical property etc, a lot of people leave digital assets as well, and these may be more than we are aware of.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

Everything from email and social media accounts, to online financial accounts, domain names, digital media collections (music and movies), and even things like video game avatars and frequent flier mileage accounts, come under digital assets. Planning for digital assets is something that anyone drawing up a will -- or power of attorney -- should consider these days. We speak to cyber expert Vijay Mukhi and will expert Vimal Punmiya, on how we can keep these assets secure.

In the ether
Cyber guru Vijay Mukhi explains why the intangible matters, and how to place a value on it

What are digital assets? Do digital assets really matter after death?
Digital assets are anything that we store online, on our computer or in a cloud. Basically anything that has value to it. It could be monetary value or emotional and personal value. Digital assets include everything, from domain names to twitter handles, apps to frequent flyer miles. For example, for a photographer their photographs are their assets. It has either emotional or monetary values attached to it. In some cases both. Similarly everything an author writes online is his digital asset.

A Facebook account or a Twitter account is a digital asset and has financial value if it has a brand value attached to it. For example when a celebrity tweets about a specific brand or event, most of the times they are paid for those tweets or status updates. Hence the Twitter and Facebook account are digital assets.

Like assets which you can touch and feel, digital assets also have financial and emotional value. The only difference is that you cannot touch digital assets. Earlier if I wanted money, I would go to the bank, write myself a cheque and get my money. Bank accounts today are nothing more than numbers, password and a series of numbers on a debit card. Anyone who has any of these three is the owner of the bank account. There is no need of proof if you are accessing your accounts online. We have virtually shifted everything we do in our lives, online. Hence, knowing what our digital assets are is important.

What provisions can we make to manage our digital assets after our death?
The most important online assets to secure are the monetary assets. Today all our real money has become digital. If you have digital money, ie your online cash, FDs, shares and so on, make sure you don’t hand out your username and password to anyone other than the person you trust. Now your bank account is nothing but a series of numbers which can be accessed by anyone.

Today we have four to five banking account passwords, plus Gmail password, iTunes password, frequent-flier miles password and so on. You can mail yourself all your usernames and passwords, but but there is the chance of a hacker breaking into your account. To escape that situation, there are websites such as one called, where you can secure all the information of your online accounts, with just one username and password, to your loved one. This is better than writing your usernames and passwords on a piece of paper or emailing yourself. It is safer and more secure.

Another way is to start dividing your monetary and non-monetary digital assets. After dividing, distribute these assets clearly to the people you want to. Tell your lawyers and accountants about it and include it in your will. Save your usernames and passwords in individual USBs and give it to your lawyer, to pass it to the people who will access that account. I would suggest following the American law as most of the websites we use are American.

What is the major problem while securing online assets in a will?
When we make a will and assign an executor, our assets go to that executor. Most of the websites, where we have accounts, are foreign companies.

Whether they will follow the Indian law or not, is a million-dollar question. For example, I have a Facebook, Twitter and Gmail account. In my will I have named my wife as my executor and she is responsible for all my accounts. But why will these sites give my wife all the access and believe that document, as they don’t follow that law? Also, companies like Google or Yahoo base their business model on users’ trust. Users expect them to defend their privacy, so the companies protect that privacy even after the users are gone.

Hence the best way to avoid this is by having two wills. One that follows the Indian law and the other that follows the law of the country where your social networking site originates from.

Where there is a will
Legal expert Vimal Punmiya tells us how to leave a secure legacy

What is a will? Are online assets included in a will?
A will is a document which provides the manner in which a person’s own property would be distributed after his/her death. The will does not take effect from the date of its execution. It speaks from the death of the testator (person who makes the will). During the testator’s lifetime, the will is revocable at any time.

As for online assets, there are no special provisions for them under our law. Assets are assets. Same laws are applicable to your online assets as they are to your movable and immovable assets. There is no difference. Since our life is going digital, I think we should strongly consider including them in our wills.

How is a will made? Is there a process to making a will?
A will must be in writing and needs to be signed and attested.

Can be in any language; no technical words need to be used

Two witnesses must attest a will; one preferably a doctor

They should sign in the presence of each other and the person making the will.

In India, the registration of wills is not compulsory

The will should provide for the appointment of executors, though not mandatory.

No stamp duty is required to be paid for executing a will.

What is precaution should we take while drafting a will?
Prepare a list of all your assets and property which remain after taking into account all debts, liabilities and expenses to get a clear picture of how you wish to distribute.

The will should be drafted in the language best understood by the testator so as to give the impression that the contents were fully understood

In case the testator is illiterate the will should be executed in a language which the testator can comprehend.

Unusual characters of the will should be explained and clarified in the main body of the will itself.

7 easy steps to protect your digital assets
1. Make a list:

Make a list of everything you access online. This includes emails, websites, social networking sites, your photos, songs, frequent flier miles, any online points, and bank accounts and so on.

2. Jotting down:
Other than your passwords, usernames and security questions, write it down clearly for you representative for east access.

3. Know the law:
Though in India, there is no specific law for safeguarding your digital assets, if you are including it in your will, it is always better to consult an attorney or will expert.

4. Planning is about privacy:
While assigning a person to one of your digital assets, mention clearly what has to be done. Hence the ‘executor’ will not be able to mishandle your asset.

5. Identifying:
Name the person or people who will handle your digital assets. It should typically be a person you trust. List all the details clearly.

6. Systematic compilation:
Keep your passwords, username, and account numbers and so on separate from the will. But make sure you cover details that need to be legally binding in a will.

7. Re-examining agreements:
Go through your digital policies that you never read. For accounts that are important to you (and which may not be legally classified as your property or as something transferrable), research the company’s MO. 

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