Estate Planning

unlocking digital assets after death

Executors Fight to Get Access to E-mails

John Ajemain, Forty-Six  died in a bicycle accident.  He had no Will or Trust.  His brother and sister became the Personal Representatives (PRs) of his estate.  They sought access to John’s “digital assets” in particular Yahoo e-mail account to review for other assets such as bank accounts and liabilities.  Yahoo denied access and a court battle ensued.

How Yahoo Justified Refusal

Yahoo refused  relied upon the two points.  First they claimed that the Stored Communications Act “SCA”(18 USC Sec. 2701) prevented such disclosure.  Yahoo also claimed that the terms of service agreement governing use of the Yahoo account allowed them to withhold or even destroy the information.

Stored Communication Act

The Court examined the SCA and found that the act was established to prevent “overzealous” law enforcement from gaining access to private accounts.  However, the SCA provides an exception to the nondisclosure to “with the lawful consent of the originator”.  Yahoo’s position was that the PRs “cannot lawfully consent on behalf of the decedent, regardless of the estate’s property interest in the e-mail messages”.  In Yahoo’s view, only a living person had the authority to grant the consent.

Luckily, the court did not agree with Yahoo on this point.  After an exhaustive examination of statutory construction, the Court held that the SCA could not be used to prevent disclosure to the PRs.  It found that the PRs had the authority to provide “lawful consent” and that access to the records was necessary because Yahoo’s refusal “would significantly curtail the ability of the personal representatives to perform their duties”.  The court stated that nothing in the SCA “would suggest that lawful consent precludes consent by a personal representative on a decedent’s behalf.”

 

Terms of Service Agreement, Yahoo’s Delete Button

Even though the Court threw out the SCA defense, it still wasn’t sure what to do the “Terms of Service Agreement”.  According to Yahoo, that the Agreement trumps the PR’s property interest in the records.  The Agreement says:

You agree that Yahoo, in its sole discretion, may terminate your password, account…and remove and discard any Content…for any reason”.  The Court was not certain that this provision was enforceable or whether the essentials for a valid contract existed.  In short, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that there was a “meeting of the minds” with regard to Yahoo’s Agreement.  The Supreme Court sent the matter back to the Trial Court to take evidence on the matter.

What this Means to You

Unfortunately, the Court did provide a definitive answer to the question of whether the records will ultimately be handed over to the PRs.  This will play itself out in the courts below.  But there are things that you may consider.  What is frightening is how hard Yahoo is fighting to keep John’s records from his PR.  Yahoo is not alone in their position.  This area of the law is evolving.  While there are no definite answers the following are a few good ideas:

Digital Power of Attorney:  Your power of attorney should provide your agent with the authority to access your accounts.  This is increasingly necessary as many banks, financial products and other transactions occur digitally.  Failure to have access may be disruptive in the event of a disability.

Digital Powers in Will:  It is a good idea to include digital authorities in your Will which grants your Personal Representative the authority to access accounts.

Password Access:  The powers stated above are useless if one does not have access to the passwords.  Use a service like LastPass and DocuBank to keep track of your passwords.

Paper Copies:  The Yahoo case shows why it is important to maintain some paper copies of your important records.  Perhaps it is a good idea print out some statements and keep them with your other papers.

Want to read the Case?  Click Here

 

 

 

 

Can Somebody with Dementia or Alzheimer’s Make a Will?

Yes, but there may be a point where this becomes impossible.

Families often face a difficult situation when they receive a Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis.  Often, the signs preceded the diagnosis.  Whether an individual is dealing with a suspicion or “official” diagnosis, there may still be an opportunity to create an estate plan.   In fact, there is a great need to do so.

Good News, Estate Planning is Possible

Everybody over the age of 18, even those with a disease affecting their brain, is presumed to be competent to create a will.   This means that they have “testamentary capacity”.  Even if somebody has been determined by a court to be incompetent, there may be times when the person may have lucid intervals when he knows the extent of his estate and who should receive the inheritance.

Nature of Dementia, Windows of Opportunity

Most of us who have been around suffers of dementia realize that it is not an all or nothing condition.  For example, the term “sundowners” unsplash-windowrefers to the worsening of dementia in the late afternoon or evening.  At those time, individuals may hallucinate, become agitated or paranoid.  See http://sundownerfacts.com/symptoms/  Strangely, for some of these people the conditions disappear or lessen the next morning.

Generally, dementia such as Alzheimer’s is progressive.  However, the rate that it progresses varies.  According to Alz.org.[i]

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease worsen over time, although the rate at which the disease progresses varies. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, but can live as long as 20 years, depending on other factors.

From a planning perspective, it is best to draft and sign essential estate and asset planning documents early.  These may include:

  • Powers of Attorney

  • Wills

  • TrustA photo by Sonja Langford. unsplash.com/photos/eIkbSc3SDtI

  • Advanced Healthcare Directives (Living Wills)

  • HIPAA Releases

Concerns about Long Term Care

In addition, this is an ideal time to make plans for governmental programs that can help pay for care.  For example, Medicare does not pay for long-term care in a facility.  However, Medicaid can be an option to explore.  Also, veterans, their spouses and widows can be eligible for certain pensions such as the VA Wartime Pension also know as Aid and Attendance.  However, both Medicaid and certain VA benefits are needs based.  This means that those with too much income and or too much in net worth may not be eligible for these programs.  However, individuals can become eligible without losing their life savings.

In short, when a diagnosis occurs, it is a good idea to consult with an elder law attorney who has knowledge about the disease, the needs of the family and how to navigate through the Medicaid and VA eligibility requirements.  However, failure to take advantage of the opportunity to plan may result in the need of guardianship or other court administered processes.

[i] http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_stages_of_alzheimers.asp

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