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Assembly Approves Greenwald, Burzichelli, Ramos & DeAngelo Bill Allowing Estate Executors to Access Online Accounts of the Deceased

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald and Assemblymen John Burzichelli, Ruben Ramos, Jr. and Wayne DeAngelo that would allow an executor of an estate to take control of a person’s online accounts in the event of their death was approved 78-0 Thursday by the full Assembly.

“The rapid progression of the Internet continually presents new legal hurdles that most people wouldn’t even think of,” said Greenwald (D-Camden/Burlington). “While many people set up plans to handle their physical possessions after they pass, most wouldn’t think to designate a plan for their online accounts. Even if they did, it’s sometimes difficult to get around complex privacy or terms of service agreements. This bill will make that easier.”

The bill (A-2943) would allow the executor or administrator of an estate to take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any micro-blogging or short message service website or any e-mail service websites.

“Sites like Facebook and Twitter are essentially an online snapshot of a person’s life,” said Burzichelli (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). “Executors should have the power to control these accounts without the burden of navigating complex online hurdles. End of life situations are difficult enough.”

The sponsors noted that what happens to a person’s online property and online records when they die is largely related to the Terms of Service for a particular online service or account. In 2005, a Michigan father made headlines when he had to go to court to get a judge’s order to access the email account of his son, a marine who was killed while inspecting a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Since then, various jurisdictions have enacted provisions governing online accounts for the deceased, including a 2010 Oklahoma law, which the measure approved today is based on.

“Online accounts are really no different than any other personal possessions that you might entrust your estate executor to handle,” said Ramos (D-Hudson). “This will help make accessing those accounts easier, especially during what is usually an emotionally trying time.”

The bill also makes it clear that the executor or administrator is authorized to take necessary or permissible steps, which may include obtaining a court order, to access the contents of a decedent’s online accounts.

“The last thing a grieving family member needs is to deal with the headache of wrangling with the often nameless, faceless powers-that-be operating a particular website,” said DeAngelo (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “This would give them the legal authority to oversee any existing online accounts much like they would a person’s tangible estate.”

The measure now awaits consideration by the Senate.