Ajemian died in a bicycle accident at age 43. With no will, his estate passed to a surviving brother and sister. As the siblings began going through his assets, they realized that having Ajemian’s emails could make it easier to identify assets and accounts. They asked Yahoo for access to the email account and explained why. Yahoo said no, citing the Stored Communications Act, a 1986 federal law governing online privacy. Yahoo claimed sharing the emails would violate the federal law. The siblings sued, and the case went through the courts until arriving at the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which ruled in the Ajemians’ favor in 2017.
This scenario, discussed in the article “Your digital self will outlive you” from Morning Brew, is a perfect example of how difficult managing digital assets can be. It also raises another question: do you want your family members reading every email you’ve ever sent or seeing every post you’ve created?
We live digital lives today: photos are stored in the cloud, social media records our personal history, digital wallets contain cryptocurrency and creative works may be password protected. If there is no digital estate planning, those assets will live forever on the web, could easily be accessed by hackers and thieves, or be erased if platforms detect inactivity for an extended period of time.
Amid the rise of digital estate planning startups are ethical debates about what should happen to digital lives living on the cloud. These private and sometimes intimate exchanges will live on, long after their creators have passed. Do you want your descendants to get to know you through a chatbot created by using social media, messages and voice recordings? The technology exists already, although even Microsoft deemed it too creepy to bring to market. At least, for now.
Digital accounts are vulnerable to hackers, difficult to identify and easy to disappear. Executors trying to settle estates are often locked out of accounts by default. Forty-seven states have adopted some version of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA, which provides a legal framework to allow people to designate someone to take over their digital assets when they die—but only if a person actively picks someone to do it.
Given how few Americans have an estate plan, the number who have made plans for online assets is even smaller. Some big tech companies have added features to allow a legacy contact to take over accounts when users die, but not many. Facebook allows a person to let a legacy contact see and download posts, but the contact cannot go into Messenger history.
Unless you make plans to address it, your digital life will outlive you. Not making digital assets part of your estate plans could also make your estate more vulnerable to scammers. A better way forward is to place your traditional and digital assets under the protection of a comprehensive estate plan, created by an experienced estate planning attorney.
Reference: Morning Brew (July 1, 2022) “Your digital self will outlive you”