If you are like most people, there are probably a few emails in your inbox or outgoing mail folder that you never want anyone else to see. Whether it’s a receipt for something embarrassing you bought online, or a racy note you sent to a past love, there are some things you just want to keep to yourself. However, unless you include instructions regarding your digital assets in your estate plan, your loved ones may be able to get access to our online accounts after you are gone.
Yahoo is currently asking the Supreme Court of the United States to take up this issue, after it was told by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that it is not prohibited from disclosing the contents of a deceased user’s account to his or her estate administrators.
The case centers around John Ajemian’s email account. When Mr. Ajemian died in a cycling accident in 2006, his siblings, who were serving as his estate administrators, asked the company for access to his account. Yahoo, like many other service providers, argued that they were prohibited from sharing account information with others by the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Mr. Ajemian’s siblings sued, and now the case may be heard by our nation’s highest court.
Whether the Supreme Court takes up the case or not, this is a rapidly changing area of law. So much of our lives are captured by our digital accounts that it is no wonder our relatives are interested in gaining access to them both as a way to grieve, and for financial and privacy-related reasons. Companies are recognizing this and are starting to update their terms of service to allow accounts to change hands at the time of death.
Facebook, for example, now allows account creators to specify whether they would like their account shut down, turned into a memorial, or transferred to someone else to manage. Google lets users designate someone who can download certain company-owned data such as Drive documents, emails, or do what is necessary to close out a Google pay account after the account’s original owner has passed away.
Our firm works with clients to make sure they understand what will happen to their assets after they die, and we see digital assets as a part of this. If you are making plans for your own digital afterlife, or struggling to figure out what to do with a loved one’s online accounts, we can help. Contact us today to discuss estate planning strategies that will keep our digital assets protected.