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The outcomes of legal cases addressing new or evolving situations and technology often set precedents for how laws should be applied moving forward. Estate administration appears to have experienced just such a precedent, with a recent court ruling affecting how emails might be handled after death. The case also highlights the importance of addressing how digital assets should handled.

In 2006, two siblings outside of Georgia were made representatives of their brother's estate following his death.  Soon after they attempted to access their brother's stored emails with Yahoo, but the tech company refused, claiming that a 1986 law prevented it from doing so. In 2009 they filed a probate court complaint about Yahoo. They claimed that they needed access to the emails in order to properly administer their brother's estate.

The issue went all the way up to their state's Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that the law it cited when refusing access to the emails did not actually prevent the company from doing so. The case was then sent back to a lower probate court for proceedings to continue. Yahoo now claims that its terms of service allow the company to deny the sibling's request.

Digital assets -- including emails, login information and other digital information -- is increasingly common. Despite this rapid rise in technology, these types of assets are often left out of wills, making estate administration a difficult task for executors. To streamline the probate process and make things as simple as possible for executors and surviving family members, Georgia residents should be sure to include all relevant digital data in their estate plan.

Source: Fortune, "Massachusetts Court: Yahoo Can Give Dead Man's Emails to Siblings", Oct. 16, 2017

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