Oh how things have changed.
Around 600 BC, Athenian statesman and law maker, Solon, was credited with the introduction into Greek law of wills. Prior to this, no man in Greece was allowed to make a will; all his assets at death belonged to his family. The terms of Solon’s law bear much resemblance to what we have under UK law today.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, some 2,500 years on, that the real winds of change were about to have a fundamental impact on our personal assets. And the origins of these winds? Cyberspace!
But let’s go back just a few years to the early 1980s when these winds were little more than just a soft breeze. Microsoft ruled the world, our computers being largely DOS-based and essentially stand-alone word processors. The World Wide Web, emails, social media, Second Life and fiat currencies were all at least a decade or more away.
With the introduction of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web in 1993, that early breeze started to gather intensity. The computer slowly evolved from a word processor into an Internet portal that became the primary means of people interacting with the world around them.
The turn of the second millennium and the spinnakers are up and the sails are full as we race into the digital era. Not only are we now using keyboard and mouse to connect with the world at large, but the introduction of VoIP has meant that even telephone services are transmitted over the Internet. I’m sure the song made famous by jazz musician Louis Armstrong in 1968, “What a Wonderful World”, was not based on the world that was beginning to dominate our lives.
Indeed, for many of us, the transformation into the Cyberworld was so subtle that we didn’t even realise what was happening around us – until there was a power failure!
The Internet has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s inconceivable to think that we could do anything, professionally or personally, without it. And therein lies a conundrum.
Solon set the scene for the disposal of our assets in accordance with our wishes following death, but in the Cyberworld in which we now reside, we have a number of very different asset classes. We are accumulating vastly more digital assets than we are physical assets and the legal system that should effectively deal with these types of assets is woefully behind the times.
Probate as arrived in Cyberspace but there are few who are capable of taking care of its inhabitants. In fact, such is the pace of technological change that many lawyers are suggesting the legal system may never catch up.
Does it really matter that the law is not up-to-date with regard to probate and digital assets? Without addressing specifics, having a will should cover all our assets – both physical and digital – should it not? The answer to the first question is an absolute YES and the answer to the second, sadly, is no.
As in the real world, life in Cyberspace varies and each decedent is going to present numerous challenges for the surrogate/executor and his or her legal advisors. As we have said in the past, just determining what online accounts a decedent has can be the first major challenge. Even when these accounts have beed identified, access to them will need to be gained.
Being an inanimate object, the computer is not able to make a rational judgement as to whether a user should have access to the privilege being requested (accessing files for example). For many of us, security revolves around the use of passwords. So, without a human to monitor the transaction, the assumption is made that if the user has the right password, then the user is the person who he or she claims to be – or at least has been duly authorised by the legitimate owner of the password.
With online accounts we use passwords and other security tools to protect our valuable property. In many cases, terms and conditions relating to usernames and passwords make it binding on the individual not to share these with anyone else.
In a study by private banking organisation US Trust, it was reported that of the wealthiest respondents, almost 50 percent regularly change their passwords to protect anything stored electronically. Probate estate may not always be required, but in many cases estate administration lawyers are suggesting that it would be desirable to establish one in order to give the personal representative of the decedent access to cyber property.
The most effective way for people to protect their digital estates is not in a conventional will, but in a digital will allows individuals to inventory all their digital assets, including usernames, passwords and postmortem instructions. A digital surrogate or executor is named by the asset owner and this person is subsequently provided access to the digital property upon satisfactory provision of proof of death or permanent incapacity. The digital executor can then download, delete or provide to beneficiaries such assets in accordance with the instructions of the decedent.
Would Solon be turning in his grave if he could see the position of our laws today regarding wills? You can bet your last Bitcoin he would!