YOUR PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVES RIGHTS TO YOUR DIGITAL ASSETS

by on Nov. 27, 2017

Estate Intellectual Property 

Summary: In Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., (Mass., No. SJC-12237, Oct. 16, 2017) the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed the issue of whether the personal representative of a decedent’s estate was entitled to access their email account. Yahoo had refused to provide the personal representative with access to the account and the estate was subsequently forced to commence a declaratory judgment action to gain the access it sought. In reliance on the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) , 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq., which prohibits unauthorized third parties from accessing communications stored by service providers, the matter was initially decided by the Probate and Family Court Judge by summary judgment. The personal representatives then appealed the ruling. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reviewed the issue, reversed the lower court ruling and found that the SCA did not prohibit the personal representatives, who stepped into the shoes of the decedent, from accessing the decedent’s emails since the personal representatives consented to the disclosure on the decedent's behalf and granted them unrestricted account access.

John Ajemian passed away on August 10, 2006, with no testamentary documents but a Yahoo email account. The email account did not designate an authorized representative who could access the account after his death. The personal representatives of the decedent’s estate sought unrestricted access[1] to the contents of the email account by claiming them to be “property of the estate” which Yahoo declined to grant them pursuant to both the SCA and under its terms of service agreement. Yahoo advised that it would “furnish subscriber information only if presented with a court order mandating disclosure to the account holder's personal representatives.” The personal representatives obtained the court order and subscriber information and were then forced to commence a declaratory judgment action in the Probate and Family Court against Yahoo to gain unfettered access to the email account. Yahoo responded with a motion for summary judgment, based upon the argument that disclosure was prohibited by the SCA, which was granted. The personal representatives then elected to appeal the ruling. The matter subsequently made it up to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

 

Before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the personal representatives argued that they fell under one of the few exceptions to the SCA. Their first argument, that they were agents of the decedent, was dismissed since they did not “fall within the ambit of this common-law meaning; they were appointed by, and are subject to the control of, the Probate and Family Court, not the decedent.” The Court reasoned that "[a] person appointed by a court to manage the affairs of others is not an agent of the others." Their second argument, “that they lawfully may consent to the release of the contents of the decedent's e-mail account in order to take possession of it as property of the estate” provided them with the necessary traction to have the Court reverse the lower court ruling. In opposition, Yahoo argued that the personal representatives of the estate could not lawfully consent to release of the email account on behalf of the decedent. In reversing and remanding the case back to the Probate and Family Court Judge the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the SCA did not prevent Yahoo from divulging the contents of the decedent’s email account where a personal representative consent to disclosure on the decedent's behalf.

 


[1] The personal representatives had been previously provided with subscriber record information after they obtained a court order.

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