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Probate courts face issue of whether to release private emails

In Ohio and other states, should a person's estate have complete control over the decedent's private emails?  A service provider, Yahoo, recently filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that it reverse a state court decision holding that a probate court could not refuse the estate's access to the deceased man's private emails. The original refusal of access was based on the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA), which sets up certain privacy protections for electronic accounts.

Yahoo claims that the SCA does not allow it to release the man's personal emails. The decedent died intestate (without a will) at age 42 in a motorcycle accident in 2006. If he had made a will, he could have made provisions for the disposition of the emails and his other electronic accounts. However, since more than half of the adult population nationwide does not have a will, the issue takes on some prominence, which may lead the Supreme Court to accept jurisdiction over the case.

Yahoo argues that the ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court eliminates personal privacy in email content after a person's death. That Court had reversed the probate court's decision to grant Yahoo's request to keep the emails private. The family of the decedent and the decedent's estate sought to have the emails released to them.

The estate's argument is that there is nothing in the SCA that demonstrates a clear intent to intrude on state probate decisions regarding such estate matters. One question that may arise is what will Yahoo do with the emails if it wins the case, and will it have the option of releasing the items to the estate? Will the service itself go through the emails and decide which of them have to remain private, or will it have the authority to simply delete all of a person's private correspondences? These are issues of vital importance that will have to be decided by the courts of each state, including in Ohio, if the Supreme Court does not intercede at this time.

Source: mediapost.com, "High Court Asked To Decide: Who Owns A Dead Man's Emails?", Ray Schultz, Feb. 11, 2018

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