Are you wondering what will happen to your Facebook account, emails, online photos and other digital assets after your death? If so, you may soon have a clearer answer under Massachusetts law. Norfolk Probate Court will soon decide whether a Personal Representative appointed in Massachusetts may access the emails of a deceased person in the case of Ajemian v. Yahoo!. The case has worked its way through the Massachusetts courts for the last several years.
Ajemian is an interesting case with potentially significant implications. John Ajemian died in August 2006. He died intestate (without a Will) and at the time of his death owned a Yahoo email account. His siblings were appointed as Personal Representatives (PRs) of his estate by Norfolk Probate Court. After their appointment they asked Yahoo for access to John’s email account. Yahoo denied their request. So the PRs brought an action in Norfolk Probate Court to obtain access, but the court denied their petition. The court held that Yahoo was prohibited from disclosing the emails under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), a federal law designed to maintain the privacy of electronic communications held by internet service providers.
On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in October 2017 that Yahoo was not prohibited from releasing the emails to the PRs under the SCA. The reason was two fold. First, the emails were property of John’s estate over which the PRs could exercise control and ownership. Second, the PRs could “lawfully consent” to the release of the emails, an exception to the disclosure prohibition of the SCA.
While the SJC decision was a victory for the PRs, the court declined to determine whether Yahoo was required to disclose the emails under Yahoo’s terms of service agreement (TOS) with John. Yahoo argued that the TOS gives it the authority to terminate the account at any time which allows it to deny the PR’s access. The SJC remanded to the Probate Court to determine whether Yahoo could withhold the emails under the TOS.
Yahoo petitioned to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in late March 2018. This means the case is now in the hands of Norfolk Probate Court again to determine whether Yahoo can deny the PRs access to the emails based on the provisions of the TOS.
I am eagerly awaiting the decision of Norfolk Probate. It will have widespread implications in determining whether and how PRs may access the digital assets of a decedent in Massachusetts. Even after Norfolk Probate decides, questions will likely remain. Will a PR be able to access a digital asset if the TOS explicitly prohibits access by a PR or states that the account terminates at death? Will the PR’s authority over the decedent’s assets trump the provisions of the TOS? What if access to the digital assets is not addressed in the decedent’s estate plan?
Stay tuned for additional updates about the Ajemian case and estate planning for digital assets. This is an interesting and developing area of the law.