By Monte L. Schatz
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a ruling on October 16, 2017 that empowers administrators of estates to access digital content of deceased persons.
Federal statutes 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 through 2712 titled The Stored Communications Act created privacy rights to protect the contents of certain electronic communications and files from disclosure by certain online service providers. If the Act applies, the online user account service provider is prohibited from disclosing the contents/files to the estate or trust representatives and family members unless there is an exception under the Act. The result of this legislation was that many digital communications and accounts of a deceased person were inaccessible
The Stored Communications Act provides for certain exceptions in § 2703 (b). One of the exception states that, “[A] provider may divulge the contents of a communication… with the lawful consent of the originator or an addressee or intended recipient of such communication.” The language of this exception did not clarify if the recipient could include a fiduciary of a trust or estate.
In Ajemian v. Yahoo, 478 Mass. 169 (2017) the administrator and siblings of a deceased brother’s estate sought to gain access to information from the son’s Yahoo email account. In that capacity, they sought access to the contents of the e-mail account. While providing certain descriptive information, Yahoo declined to provide access to the account, claiming that it was prohibited from doing so by certain requirements of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts stated in its decision that, “Nothing in this definition would suggest that lawful consent precludes consent by a personal representative on a decedent’s behalf. Indeed, personal representatives provide consent lawfully on a decedent’s behalf in a variety of circumstances under both Federal and common law.” The court relied on Massachusetts’ provisions in the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Act that has been adopted in 36 states including Nebraska and Iowa. This legislation provides a clear state law procedure for fiduciaries to follow to request access to or disclosure of online account contents and other digital assets.
Though the Massachusetts state court ruling isn’t binding on other states, this case will provide valuable precedent and guidance in interpreting and applying a standard that allows estate administrators to gain access to digital information of a deceased that previously was prohibited under strict interpretation of federal law by certain digital service providers.
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