Although the promise of the "paperless society" has yet to realize its full potential, the rise of web-based services such as cloud computing and online data storage, along with web-based email, banking and investing accounts have become increasingly commonplace. But the convenience of being able to access one’s financial and other information from any place that has data connectivity has also on occasion created problems after a person passes away. Online services, often for privacy reasons, may hesitate or refuse to allow surviving relatives access to the decedent’s accounts.
The majority of states in the U.S. apparently have no state law to address this issue, which in the digital age can only become a more frequent point of contention in estate administration.
It was the experience of a resident in another state that has led to proposed state legislation. A woman learned that her deceased husband’s email provider had deactivated his email account instead of allowing her to gain access to it. If approved, the law would be the first comprehensive law in the United States that would enable a person to identify in his or her last will and testament a trusted person or persons authorized to take control over electronic accounts.
The proposed law, which has been under consideration for three years, would allow people to specify in their wills what accounts they do, or do not, wish to be accessible to guardians, trustees or estate executors.
It would require online companies to cede control over the accounts of decedents who properly provide for such post-mortem access, and would subject those companies to civil penalties if they refuse to do so within 30 days of receiving a request. Whether similar laws will be considered in Philadelphia in the near future remains to be seen. However, the issue of digital asset accessibility is one that affects people all across the country.
As technology evolves, there is often a need to adapt our laws as well. It is a good idea to speak with an attorney to better understand your options when drafting your will or other estate planning documents.
Source: WDDE, "Bill seeks to address digital asset issues in estate planning," James Dawson, May 16, 2014