SJC Rules Executors May Be Able to Access a Decedent’s Online Content

On October 16, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc. holding that an online provider is not precluded under the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) from turning over electronic mail to a Personal Representative (Executor) of an estate. The decision points out some of the difficulties that can be encountered when a person dies and leaves no information on how to access online content. In this case, the need for the Personal Representatives to access emails of the decedent resulted in costly and protracted litigation.

The decedent, John Ajemian, died unexpectedly in a bicycle accident at the age of forty-three. He left behind no will or instructions on how to access any online accounts. John’s siblings were appointed by a court as Personal Representatives and made a request that Yahoo provide the full substance of John’s electronic mail (e-mail). The decision did not disclose why the Personal Representatives wanted access to the e-mails, but Yahoo refused the request on multiple grounds, relying primarily on its assertion that the SCA barred disclosure. The Court, however, ruled that disclosure was allowed in this case under an exception contained in the SCA for instances where “lawful consent” has been given. The Court essentially reasoned that a Personal Representative has authority to step into the shoes of a decedent and provide the necessary consent.

A majority of the Court did not resolve an alternative argument by Yahoo that it was entitled to deny access to the e-mails under its terms of service agreement and remanded that case for further consideration by the Probate and Family Court.

This case, which took many years and continues still, no doubt cost the estate a large amount in legal fees and could have been easily avoided by proper planning. The case underscores the importance of not only proper estate planning, but for the simple act of writing down username and password information for online accounts and leaving them where trusted loved ones can find them if something untoward happens. Doing so could have saved great difficulty.