In what appears to be a case of first impression in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has ruled that Yahoo may disclose the contents of a deceased’s Yahoo email account to his personal representatives and is not precluded from doing so by the Stored Communications Act (SCA).
The subscriber passed away following a bicycle accident. His siblings, as personal representatives of his estate, requested the contents of his email account from Yahoo. Yahoo provided basic information to the siblings about the deceased’s email messages sent and received, but refused to provide the content of the emails. The siblings sued Yahoo seeking the content. The Probate and Family Court ruled that the SCA prohibited Yahoo from providing the emails to the siblings.
After the siblings sued, Yahoo filed for Summary Judgment arguing that the Stored Communications Act prohibited it from providing the content of the deceased’s email account and requesting that the Probate and Family Court Order be upheld. The SJC stated that the lawful consent exception to the SCA allows Yahoo to provide the emails to the personal representatives of the estate as they can provide consent on behalf of the deceased. It further ruled that if the SCA was interpreted in the manner argued by Yahoo, it would preempt Massachusetts probate and common law, which the SJC did not believe was Congress’ intent.
The Judge was quick to point out that although the SCA does not prohibit the disclosure of the emails, this does not mean that Yahoo is required to disclose the emails to the siblings. She remanded the case to the Probate and Family Court for it to consider Yahoo’s argument that its terms of service, which the deceased agreed to when opening his account, gives Yahoo discretion to reject the siblings’ access to the account.
This case is interesting in the context of including digital assets in estate planning (related posts on digital assets are available here, here, and here).