Technology and the Changing Inheritance Laws

The procedures for dealing with a person’s property after death differ based on your location, culture, and whether a legal Will is in place or not. For example, there is no inheritance law or ancestral property distribution or birth-rights in Islamic law. When it comes to inheritance law in the United States, dying without a Will to pass down an estate is known as dying intestate.

However, here in the United States, we have a system for transferring property upon death. The process is so specific to the value of the estate, and the local customs for dealing with all sorts of property, taxation, and gifts. Inheritance in the United States legally transfers through the probate court system at the state level. Further, local courts are subject to the procedures, taxes, etc congruent with the state laws.

The History of Inheritance

During the colonial era, the early settlers began using English inheritance laws to pass property from one family member to another.

Following independence, however, many states created their own statutes and modifications to those laws. In many cases, the state courts adapted traditional English laws and procedures to fit the local attitude and customs.

In the nineteenth century, some regions entered the union as community-property states. These states adopted many elements of civil law.

In other words, married women received control over all of their husband’s assets, and with it came the power to distribute the property as they so desired.

Around 1850, there seems to have been confusion concerning the equality of widows’ and widowers’ intestacy rights.  However, in the twentieth century, spouses (both husbands and wives) came to be treated equally, and even more favorably than the couple’s children when it came to inheritance rights.

The Laws of Succession

The laws of succession determine a method of distribution of the property of a deceased person who dies without having a legal Will in place.

Conventional inheritance laws were put in place to account for the most common scenarios in that time period.

Unfortunately, many of these no longer apply as the internet was then a vague idea that most people didn’t acknowledge or benefit from.

Today, however, with rapidly changing technology and methods of communication, the legal system can barely keep up.

Through continually stretching the goalposts of possibility, and challenging existing rules, former grey areas have changed the probate system in unimaginably beneficial ways.

When a court faces uncertain realities, especially those arising from new technologies, the burden lies on the legislature to determine the course of action.

The legislature must not deviate from existing state parameters. However, they must try to make sense of the situation at hand and empathize with all parties involved. In some cases, if there is no definitive procedure in place, they must adapt existing regulations while factoring in what the new technology brings to the table.

Let’s put things into perspective with a famous example from the state of Arkansas:

How Reproductive Technology is Altering Inheritance Laws

The Arkansas case:

A wife and her husband had frozen an embryo in a lab.

After the husband’s death, she deeply missed him and began to desire having children once again. So the wife had the embryo implanted.

After the child’s birth, the wife sought social security benefits and took the matter to court.

According to the state of Arkansas’ inheritance laws, the child of a posthumous (dead) father is eligible for social security benefits, but only if they meet certain conditions.

First, the conception needs to have occurred before the testator’s death. 

The pair already fails to qualify at this point. But there’s more…

Secondly, the father had to have passed away intestate (without leaving behind a legal Will).

The courts eventually denied the wife’s application, even though the wife’s lawyer argued that the inception (fertilization) technically occur before the death of her husband.

Ultimately, the court dismissed her arguments. They mentioned that her claims were “contrary to what lawmakers meant by conception” at the time.

Decisions such as this could provide the precedent for future cases of this kind. However, until these kinds of cases arise, lawmakers must create new legislation. Civilians must continue fighting for their rights in court, without definitive answers.

These new laws could take a decade to become fully established, and technology continues to change and evolve. It’s more likely that future inheritance laws of this nature will be heard and determined on a case by case basis.

Social Media Wills are Growing in Popularity

With the turn of the new millennium came the digital age and the need for provisions on how one could pass their social media accounts, email accounts, and other private digital information down to their loved ones.

You can now determine what happens to your Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail accounts, etc. via an online executor.

That means that a legal representative is given the authority to share private account data after a person dies. Further, this could be a different person from your physical estate representative. In many cases, this authority goes to estate administrators and attorneys.

Additionally, a Will shared via social media is something that has been around for some time now. Originally dismissed in a court of law, these kinds of Wills are starting to gain prominence – and thus receive more validity when presented in probate court.

Access to Digital Inheritance may Change

Afterlife control of digital assets isn’t as effective as is the case with physical assets.

Regardless of the existence of a social media Will, it’s best to legally record your Will with an estate planning attorney and mention the social media, and digital assets you’d also like to pass down.

Aspects like terms of service and end-user agreements are the primary culprits when accounts do not transfer smoothly to relatives.

Many argue that digital assets entail the acquisition of a property via licenses, which don’t constitute individual ownership. It’s kind of like renting a house or a car for a while, without necessarily transferring ownership from the social media platform to the user.

However, a court of law could rule otherwise.

In 2016, a Massachusetts Appeals Court granted access of a deceased person’s account to his legal representatives. This is despite Yahoo citing a breach of the SCA (Stored Communications Act) and the privacy protections therein. However, the court found nothing wrong with granting electronic assets to estate administrators.

Makes you wonder why these companies want to maintain ownership of private accounts & information of a deceased person…

Perhaps this allows them to gather information about living friends and relatives. It seems quite nefarious, but hard for the courts to discern. This may be why the courts sided with the complainant.

Statutory Changes are on the Horizon

Inheritance laws are bound to keep changing as new technology challenges the definition of eligible beneficiaries.

As assets continually expand to accommodate digital inheritances, this area of probate law is still quite grey.

With new inventions threading in between the lines of legality, cases like the ones above will become commonplace. Judgment will likely continue to vary on a case-by-case basis. That’s why it’s a good idea to hire strong, knowledgable representation.