Who Should Get Access to a Dead Person’s Emails?
As reported in several recent articles in U.S. media outlets, the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to rule on an intriguing new legal issue, one that is becoming increasingly prevalent in this era of rampant technology: Who should have access to the emails belonging to a person who has died?
The question arose in connection with the Yahoo! account used by a now-dead Massachusetts man named John Ajemian. Four years prior to his 2006 death in a motorcycle accident at the age of 42, he had set up the Yahoo! account with his brother. He had not bothered to make a Will, so when he died there was no governing provision for how the Yahoo! account was to be dealt with.
His two siblings were initially unsuccessful in their application to a Probate and Family Court to grant them access to his account, pursuant to their authority as his surviving relatives. That court had accepted Yahoo!’s lack-of-consent-related arguments, based on the federal Stored Communications Act.
However, after a successful appeal to the state Appeal Court, the lower-court ruling was overturned. While falling short of imposing a positive mandate for Yahoo! to release the man’s emails, the Appeal ruling at least contemplated the possibility that Yahoo! could do so with the family’s permission. (The Appeal court also sent one issue back to the Probate and Family Court for a re-hearing, namely the question of whether Yahoo’s stated Terms of Service agreement constituted a valid reason for refusing access. That outcome will hinge on contract law principles, and will require the court to look at the matter from the standpoint of whether such agreements are valid and enforceable.)
The matter has now been scheduled to be considered yet again, this time by way of an application for judicial review brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. No date has yet been set for that hearing.
It will be interesting to see how that top Court comes down on the matter, especially knowing that the outcome is so directly and arguably referable to other, similar tech-related scenarios and predicaments.