In today’s electronic world, the idea of property has changed dramatically. In the past, when you were putting together an estate plan, the only intangible property that might be a part of it was certain types of securities. Now, however, you can have e-mail accounts, online subscriptions, social media passwords and other digital assets. Recognizing the importance of digital property, the New York legislature recently enacted laws setting forth the rights of potential heirs to such property.
In Matter of Serrano, 2017 NY Slip Op 27200, (Sur. Ct., New York County, June 14, 2017), the court addressed the issue of whether the fiduciary of an estate had a statutory right to access to online passwords and other digital data, so as to “inform friends of [the decedent’s] passing…and close any unfinished business.” The judge allowed disclosure of contacts and calendar information from the deceased’s Google account, but denied access to the content of the e-mails in the Google account, reasoning that the contacts were necessary for the administration of the estate. Under the recent New York law, the custodian of electronic records (here Google), can be required to disclose to the personal representative of an estate a “catalogue of electronic communications sent or received by a deceased user.” The statute defines “catalogue of electronic communications” to include only the identity of any person with who the deceased had an electronic communication, the time and date of that communication, and the e-mail address of that person.
In a more recent Surrogate Court opinion, a fiduciary’s request for access to the contents of a decedent’s Google account was denied. In Matter of White, 2017 NYLJ, October 3, 2017, at p. 25, the court expressed concern that allowing “unfettered access” to digital property had the potential to involve the unnecessary disclosure of sensitive or confidential information, unrelated to the administration of the estate. The court concluded that, when evaluating a request for access to digital data, there must be a balancing of interests—the interest of the fiduciary to properly administer the estate, and the interest of the deceased in his or her privacy. Accordingly, the court followed the precedent in Serrano, allowing disclosure of contact information only.
The estate administration process can be complex and confusing. It’s important to have a strong and knowledgeable lawyer to guide you through the process. Attorney Bonnie Lawston offers more than 20 years of experience to clients in Nassau County and Suffolk County.
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