Just recently, traditional notions of privacy have clashed with social media, prompting a headline-making case: Yahoo is denying two personal representatives access to their deceased brother’s emails.

What’s the Story?

John Ajemian was just 43 when he died in a bike accident in 2006. He did not have a Will, so his brother and sister both stepped forward as personal representatives to manage his estate. More than ten years later, the personal representatives now want access to their deceased brother’s Yahoo email account.

Seems Legit. What’s the Argument?

Legally, the personal representatives can speak on their respective decedent’s behalf. Yahoo, however, doesn’t feel that way, and is fighting to withhold the emails. Naturally, email contains stored information – in many cases, even very personal information –which is protected by what is called The Stored Communications Act, a Federal law. This act serves to prevent organizations in the public service sector from disclosing “the contents of stored communications.” In lay man’s terms, it protects your personal information from being shared with just anyone or being publically broadcasted for all the world to see.

What about the law Michigan passed?

Glad you asked. In 2016, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder passed state legislation regarding deceased people’s digital assets and information. Any person named in a Will or Trust as a personal representative, or specifically identified as the surviving manager of the deceased person’s digital accounts, has complete control over the decedent’s digital assets. Digital assets include pictures, emails, eBooks, music, social media, and other website accounts. While it was not easy to get Michigan tech companies to jump on board, they will assist designated people with accessing their deceased’s loved one’s accounts if they do not have the credentials to do so themselves.

Yes, this could change things.

Regardless of whether the court sides with Yahoo or with Ajemian’s personal representatives, it will surely set a precedent for how someone’s email will be handled after they die. Personal representatives will either have the right to access a decedent’s email account, or they will not. If not, it has yet to be determined what action, if any, will be taken with respect to those accounts. If a decision is made that contradicts Michigan’s law, it too could be challenged in the future.

Why Would I Want My Loved Ones to Have Access to my Emails?

There are many reasons you might want your loved ones to have access to your email account. Maybe you’re responsible for paying bills, and your e-statements and account information are filed there. Maybe email is where you store contact information for your closest family and friends. Maybe you have funny, memorable emails that you’ve sent over time and want your loved ones to keep them in your memory.

Whatever your reason, here are some ways to make sure your loved ones don’t end up in a legal dispute with your email provider.

  • Write down your log-in credentials and store several copies in an agreed upon place. It’s good to have a master copy of all of your credentials to important accounts, such as email and bank accounts. Keep it updated, and tell a trusted person where it is. This way, if something happens to you, someone has access to your accounts to pay bills, print documents, etc. You can also store it in the cloud using one of the many online security firms now offering this service.
  • Write it in your Will and/or Trust. As you may have heard it explained before, a Will and/or Trust gives direction regarding how you want your matters handled after your death. Ask your estate planning attorney to make sure it is included in your Will and/or Trust that you wish for so-and-so to have access to your email or other social media accounts.
  • Share an account. While this may not be ideal, it is an option. If your loved one is in a nursing or assisted living home, has special needs, or is just a minor, sharing the account might be an easy way to have all of their information. Both of your names could be included in the email address, such as: JoeJaneSmith@someemailaccount.com. This way, the account is just as much yours as it is theirs. This is similar to having a financial power of attorney on your bank account – their name is on it and they have full access to the account. Keep in mind that sharing an account, whether social media, email, or financial, requires a great deal of trust. Any emails that flow through the account can be seen by both parties, especially medical records and financial accounts.

Contact us. We do email. And phone!

Unsure about how to keep your family virtually connected to you after you pass away? Contact us, and we’ll make it happen.

Info@TheProbatePro.com or 248.399.3300.