Facebook and Email Can Live After You Die
Wills and Estate Planning: Online Accounts
When John tragically died at age 43 in a bike accident, he did not have will. His sister and brother were appointed personal representatives (formerly known as executors) of his estate. Their job was to distribute his property and assets. John, like most people today, had an e-mail account. Email accounts and social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat and LinkedIn etc. are considered to be assets of an estate, just like bank accounts or other investment accounts.
In this case, the executors wanted to access their deceased brother’s e-mail account. Because John did not have a will allowing his executors entry into the email account, the service provider, Yahoo, refused to allow it.
John’s brother and sister sued Yahoo demanding access to the account as executors of John’s estate. Yahoo countered that it was prohibited from allowing access to the email account due to Federal Law, namely The Stored Communications Act, and also due to the terms of the service contract it had with John, which gave Yahoo total discretion as to whether to allow access to the account.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) determined that Federal Law did not bar the executors from accessing the account. However, it did determine that the contract (i.e. Service Agreement) between John and Yahoo might. The case was ultimately sent back to the Probate and Family Court for a determination of whether the contract between John and Yahoo was valid.
Grant access to all online accounts.
The takeaway here is two-fold. First and foremost, to insure your last wishes are known and carried out, a will is a must. Without a will, the executors of your estate will be making their best guess about what you wanted done. Second, online accounts and your internet “presence” are now considered property, otherwise known as “digital assets.” Access to these accounts must be granted to whomever you appoint as your representative through a durable power of attorney or a will.