Family Fights for Years to Get Email Access After Untimely Death

What is considered an “asset” today may not be the same as what was an asset one hundred years ago (or fifty years in the future!). Estate planning is one area of the law that changes with the times, as it must account for what is valuable, important, and logical for individual residents–something that changes through the decades.

That principle has no better demonstration than the challenges faced by many families to recover digital assets after the passing of a loved one. Digital estate planning has been a hot topic for several years, but it is far from resolved. Many families continue to experience immense hardship as they struggle to acquire various digital reminders of their loved one, from blogs and picture repositories to email accounts. Of course, there may be some situations where individuals want their digital lives to be left untouched after a passing, but, at the very least, it is important to put some final resolution on the matter to prevent families members from engaging in anguished struggles to gain access to the assets
Battle with Yahoo
Forbes recently profiled one family that spent years trying to gain access to their loved one’s Yahoo email account after his untimely death. According to the report, the man was killed in 2006 after being struck by a car. After pursuing many avenues to access their loved one’s account, they eventually considered their legal options. Unable to get the necessary username and password combination from Yahoo itself, they filed a civil suit seeking to force the company to provide that information.

However, in a ruling released earlier this year, a state appellate court refused to grant the family’s request. The legal opinion was rooted in Yahoo’s Terms of Use which do not allow divulging this information. The case is not over, though, as the matter was remanded to a lower court to consider whether a federal law known as the Stored Communications Act allows the log-in information to be released to the administrator’s of one’s estate.

Don’t Leave It Open
The takeaway lesson for this and many other stories is the same: include relevant digital assets into your estate planning. It may not seem important now, but in the event of tragedy, these sorts of matters can prove invaluable to grieving family members. Perhaps you do not want anyone accessing this material after-the-fact. Maybe you do not care. But either way, it is critical to take away the uncertainty and make your wishes known. If you do want others to have access, you must take prudent steps so that necessary password, usernames, and other details are readily available without hassle.

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