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Legal issues regarding access to digital assets growing

As we discussed a few weeks back, online or digital assets can be problematic for some Michigan residents as people increase their online presence, the amount of information they access and store online grows. The growing use of email and paperless bill paying has created a situation where vital records are stored in online accounts only. Those involved in estate administration are having some difficulties in obtaining access to those records, as the laws regarding ownership of online accounts after death have failed to keep up with the popularity of those accounts.

The courts are just beginning to address issues related to online account transfers, and states are slowly beginning to pass legislation intended to allow relatives of those who have died or become incapacitated access to the information located in their accounts. The slow process of the law does little to halt the growing disputes over those accounts however.

One case which serves as an example of the issues faced involves a Michigan marine whose parents were not allowed access to his email on his Yahoo.com account after his 2004 death. The lack of access was due to Yahoo's privacy policy, requiring a judge's order to allow the parents eventual access to the account.

As the number of people with online access grows, cases like this continue to pop up in courtrooms throughout the country. Businesses have to deal with access issues as well. Transfers of business-related accounts are not only needed with the death of an employee but also when an employee leaves the business for other work.

Until laws are in effect that treat online assets the same as physical ones when handling an individual's estate as we mentioned in our earlier posts on the subject, preparation is needed by the account owners to provide access to their heirs. This could be as simple as creating an emergency list of account names and locations along with passwords kept in a safe place to be passed on to the account owner's heirs when necessary.

Source: The Holland Sentinel, "Legalities of 'digital assets' are changing," Stephen Kloosterman, Sept. 25, 2012

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