Probate practitioners have called for legislative change to help families access the 'digital assets' of relatives who have died.

A study by STEP – a professional body for inheritance planning advisers – and Queen Mary University of London found that there is a lack of clarity around property rights relating to digital assets.

Digital assets are objects that have monetary or sentimental value and that exist only in electronic form, such as a digital photographs, social media accounts, internet domain names, and cryptocurrencies.

In a global survey of 500 professional inheritance advisers, nearly 60% of respondents had dealt with questions from clients about digital assets. Meanwhile, around a quarter said their clients had faced difficulties accessing the digital assets of a family member. 

Man working on laptop with phone in hand

The study found there was a lack of clarity around property rights relating to digital assets

Source: iStock

The report concluded that law reform is needed to enable effective estate planning and administration. ‘This includes clear rules around property rights and rights of access by personal representatives,’ it said.

The authors also called for technology companies and cloud providers to work with lawyers to make the process less fraught. 

‘Digital assets, such as photographs posted on social media or data files stored in the cloud, are often managed or controlled by different third-party service providers, including technology companies and providers of cloud services. These companies are new intermediaries and are often key to managing digital assets. Our survey shows that cloud providers can present obstacles to both estate planning and administration,’ the report said.

The Law Commission of England and Wales is currently reviewing the law on digital assets. It has been asked by the government ‘to ensure that the law is capable of accommodating both cryptoassets and other digital assets in a way which allows the possibilities of this technology to flourish’. It’s call for evidence closed on 30 July.

Meanwhile, in January, the Law Society urged people to include digital assets in their wills, after research revealed that three quarters of people do not know what happens to their online presence after they die.