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Administering an Estate in the Digital AgeTrust & Estate Planning
Posted in on January 21, 2018
Imagine that a family member has just passed away and you know they have important information stored on the internet. It could be in the cloud, in their email, or on a social media account. How do you access this information? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently decided the case Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., 478 Mass. 169 (2017), has shed some light on this question.
Ajemian was named the Personal Representative (formerly executor/trix, appointed by the Probate Court to administer the decedent’s estate) of her late brother’s estate and needed access to his Yahoo email account. She offered her Letters of Authority (a document from the Probate Court that shows the Personal Representative has the authority to act on behalf of the estate) to Yahoo who refused to grant her access to the email account. Yahoo claimed that a Personal Representative of an Estate did not have the right to access the information because of federal privacy laws and that the disclosure violated Yahoo’s terms of service. The SJC ultimately determined that disclosing the information in the Yahoo email account to Ajemian did not violate federal privacy laws because Ajemian, as Personal Representative, was the only person with authority to consent to the release of the email account on behalf of the deceased. The SJC did not make a ruling on whether or not the disclosure would violate Yahoos terms of service and remanded that decision back to the Probate Court.
While the SJC did not give the total green light to the release of the Yahoo email account to Ajemian, the SJC did rule that the release did not violate federal privacy laws. This decision can have a ripple effect throughout the internet community possibly allowing Personal Representatives to request and access the electronic information of deceased loved ones. Facebook and Instagram already have policies in place allowing court appointed Personal Representatives to delete or memorialize the account of a deceased loved one. Gmail even allows people to appoint someone on their email service who will automatically be able to access account information after the death of the account holder.
One way to ensure that your loved ones will be able to access your electronic information, or to specifically prohibit access, is to make provisions regarding such access in your Last Will and Testament (“Will”). Your Will tells the court who you want to be in charge of your estate and what you want that person to do with your assets. This can include access, or specific prohibitions, to electronic information.
If access to your electronic information after you pass away is important to you, the Estate Planning attorneys at Baker, Braverman & Barbadoro can help you draft a Will that includes your electronic access goals. – Elizabeth A. Caruso.