February 6, 2019
Authored by: Stacie J. Rottenstreich and Karin Barkhorn
A recent New York case, Estate of Swezey (NYLJ, 1/17/19 at pp. 23, col. 3) highlights the confusion in the laws of many states regarding the administration and distribution of digital assets at a decedent’s death. In this case, decedent’s executor asked Apple to turn over decedent’s photographs stored in his iTunes and iCloud account. No provision in decedent’s Will specifically authorized the executor to access decedent’s digital account. The Court relied on the relatively new section 13-A in the New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”), Administration of Digital Assets which provides for different procedures for the disclosure of electronic communications, in contrast to the digital assets. To disclose electronic communication specific user consent is required or a specific court order for an identifiable reason. Other digital assets, such as the photographs requested by decedent’s Executor, are treated like other assets which belonged to decedent at death and are within the purview of the Executor’s general responsibility. The Swezey Executor was trying to access decedent’s photographs. The Court concluded that Apple was required to disclose those photographs.
The Uniform Law Commission promulgated the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “Original Act”) in 2014. In 2015 the Uniform Law Commission further refined their attempt and came up with a Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “Revised Act”).
The Original Act treated digital assets like traditional assets. The owners could decide what would happen to them and the fiduciaries could have control of them when the owner died or became incapacitated. After a person died, his or her executor would have the same right to access the deceased person’s accounts as the deceased person had during life. And if the executor did not have needed login or password information, he or she could ask the company for access and the company would have to comply. This approach would have given executors the access they need to wrap up the estate – including passing on photos, archiving emails, deleting or modifying social media accounts, paying final bills through bill pay, and canceling subscriptions.
This Original Act met with strong opposition from technology companies as well as from privacy advocacy groups such as the ACLU. They argued that providing executors the authority to access all of a deceased person’s digital assets would invade the deceased person’s personal privacy in ways that they would not have imagined or wanted. Additionally, technology companies argued that elements of the Original Act were contrary to federal privacy laws and state and federal computer fraud laws, forcing companies to violate one law while complying with another.
The Revised Act addressed many of these concerns and greatly reduced the authority of an executor to access digital assets. It also prioritized the document that would control some of these issues.Here are some of the key changes:
- An executor does not has authority over the content of electronic communications (private email, tweets, chats), unless the deceased person explicitly consented to disclosure.
- An executor can get access to other types of digital assets, such as photographs or an eBay or PayPal account.
- The first place to look for authority to disclose digital assets is an “online tool,” separate from terms of service, through which users during their lifetimes can determine the extent to which their digital assets are revealed to third parties, including fiduciaries. (On Facebook, for example, the online tool is known as Facebook Legacy Contact.) If a user has provided direction through the online tool, it will supersede conflicting directives, including those in a Will.
- Next look to the decedent’s or incapacitated person’s Will, trust or power of attorney to see what explicit instructions and authority, if any, are given.
- If a fiduciary does not have explicit permission through a Will, trust, or power of attorney, look to the terms-of–service agreements to see the rules regarding access to a deceased or incapacitated person’s account.
- If the terms of service do not cover the issue, the Revised Act’s default rules apply. Those default rules recognize multiple types of digital assets. For certain digital assets, like virtual currency, the Revised Act gives fiduciaries unrestricted access. For electronic communications, however, the statute does not provide fiduciaries access; instead, it allows them to access a “catalog” of communications consisting of metadata such as the addresses of the sender and recipient, as well as the date and the time the message was received.
- Fiduciaries may request court orders if necessary. In general, access is only granted to assets that are “reasonably necessary” for wrapping up the estate.
- Custodians may not provide access to deleted or joint accounts.
The Revised Act has been adopted by a majority of states in one form or another, including New York as evidenced by the enactment of Article 13-A in the EPTL, Administration of Digital Assets. However, as an individual, to be most certain you achieve the results you want, it is best you decide what you want to happen to your digital assets and on line presence if you are incapacitated or dead and have your power of attorney, Will or Revocable Trust reflect these wishes. It is a good idea to catalog your on line presence. Leave specific instructions about how to access your accounts. Include websites or devices needed, as well as usernames and passwords. Tell your executor or attorney in fact what to do with each account. Do you want your stored photos to be shared with family, your twitter account deleted, your blog to be archived and saved? Be as clear and thorough as possible. Why allow someone else to decide? Do it yourself with the help of your estate planning professional.