New report urges reforms to give families better access to the digital assets of deceased loved ones

Tuesday, 21 September 2021
  • Research by STEP and Queen Mary University of London shows families need better support in accessing loved ones’ digital assets on death or incapacity
  • Social media and email accounts top the list of assets families ask about

Ordinary families need better support from social media companies and the government when it comes to accessing the digital assets of ill or deceased loved ones, according to STEP and the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London. A new report highlights the extent of the distress caused by being cut off from digital assets when family members die or become incapacitated.

Items such as social media accounts, photos and emails have become a common part of estate planning and administration in recent years. A new survey of 500 professional inheritance advisers found that nearly 60 per cent have dealt with questions from clients about digital assets and 90 per cent expect this to increase in future. Clients most commonly asked about social media, email, cryptocurrencies, and cloud storage. The top five providers most mentioned by clients regarding digital assets stored in the cloud were Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Dropbox.

The results also show that nearly a quarter of the respondents had clients who have experienced difficulties accessing digital assets of a family member, causing significant distress and frustration in many cases. The problem is compounded by a lack of legal clarity when it comes to property rights. One in five respondents also mentioned an uncooperative attitude from service providers in situations where accounts cannot be accessed.

According to the report’s authors, legislators must put in place much clearer rules on property rights and rights of access by personal representatives. The authors also call on cloud providers to come to the table with inheritance planning experts to find more effective solutions for post-mortem account access and enable peace of mind for families.

Only 6 per cent of estate practitioners considered that there was a straightforward process for accessing digital assets stored in the cloud in their jurisdiction. Over 85 per cent stated that cloud providers should provide better solutions for managing access to digital assets stored in the cloud after death or incapacity. This shows not just the need for legal reform, but also for cooperation with cloud providers to find practical solutions.

Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel at STEP, said:

‘In just a few short years, digital assets have become fundamental to many aspects of our lives. From sentimental items like photos and social media content, to private information like confidential emails, passwords and medical records, these items are now just as important to our lives and identities as traditional assets.

‘Family members need to manage loved ones’ affairs after their death so must have access to financial and other information stored on computers and online cloud services. But an inability to obtain access is increasingly a cause of significant stress and concern.

‘The need for effective solutions to this problem is becoming ever more critical. STEP and its members want to see better engagement from governments and service providers globally so that families can plan for their futures with certainty and clarity.’

Dave Michels of the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London said:

“Digital assets can have great sentimental value, so it’s important that people have legal certainty as to what they can pass on after death. I know I’d want my wife to access our family photos stored in my iCloud account, after I die.’

Professor Christopher Millard of the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London said:

‘The Law Commission of England and Wales is currently reviewing the property status of digital assets under English law. We look forward to their recommendations and we hope that they will address the urgent need to update succession law for the 21st century.’


The report was kindly sponsored by IQ-EQ.

You can download a copy of the report at

Advice to families on how they can best plan for and manage their digital assets can be found at

Notes to editors:

  • STEP and the Microsoft-funded Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London collaborated on a joint research project into estate practitioner views on, and experiences with, digital assets
  • The aim was to understand the extent to which practitioners deal with digital assets; the risks and challenges posed by digital assets to estate planning and administration; and the measures practitioners are taking to assist clients
  • A survey sent to STEP members globally elicited more than 500 responses from a range of practitioners across the estate and wealth planning sectors
  • A list of digital assets includes but is not limited to the below. Full advice can be found on the STEP website here.
    • Financial information
    • E-mail, contacts and calendar
    • Social media accounts and data
    • Personal and sentimental items like photos, videos and purchased media
    • Digital items that may have a value, now or in the future
    • Hardware that requires passwords or codes, eg phones, tablets
    • Passwords
    • Cryptocurrencies

Contact details:

For more information on any of these issues, please contact Nick Reading or Caroline Merrell at Citigate Dewe Rogerson.

Nick Reading, Mobile 07702 718740, [email protected].

Caroline Merrell, Mobile 07852 210329, [email protected].

To arrange an interview with any of the report authors from Queen Mary University of London, please contact Laurence Leong, senior media relations officer, [email protected].

About STEP:

STEP is the global professional association for practitioners who specialise in family inheritance and succession planning. STEP works to improve public understanding of the issues families face in this area and promotes education and high professional standards among its members. STEP members help families plan for their futures, from drafting wills to issues surrounding international families, protection of the vulnerable, family businesses and philanthropic giving. Full STEP members, known as TEPs, are internationally recognised as experts in their field, with proven qualifications and experience.

About the Cloud Legal Project at Queen Mary University of London:

Professor Christopher Millard and Dave Michels are members of the Cloud Legal Project (CLP) at Queen Mary University of London (see The CLP was launched in 2009 by members of the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS) at Queen Mary University of London, with generous financial support from Microsoft Corporation. Since 2014, the CLP has collaborated with the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge, as part of the Microsoft Cloud Computing Research Centre (see

Queen Mary University of London is a world-leading research-intensive university with over 25,000 students representing more than 160 nationalities.

A member of the prestigious Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research.

In the most recent exercise that rated research in the UK, we were ranked fifth in the country for the proportion of research outputs that were world-leading or internationally excellent. We offer more than 240 degree programmes and our reputation for excellent teaching was rewarded with a silver in the 2017 Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) awards.

Queen Mary’s history dates back to 1785, with the foundation of the London Hospital Medical College. Our history also encompasses the establishment of the People’s Palace in 1887, which brought accessible education, culture and recreation to the East End of London. We also have roots in Westfield College, one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women.