Court Ruling Sheds Light on Estate’s Ability to Access Digital Information

By Monte Schatz

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a ruling on October 16, 2017 that empowers administrators of estates to access digital content of deceased persons.

Federal statutes 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 through 2712 titled The Stored Communications Act created privacy rights to protect the contents of certain electronic communications and files from disclosure by certain online service providers. If the Act applies, the online user account service provider is prohibited from disclosing the contents/files to the estate or trust representatives and family members unless there is an exception under the Act. The result of this legislation was that many digital communications and accounts of a deceased person were inaccessible

The Stored Communications Act provides for certain exceptions in § 2703 (b). One of the exception states that, “[A] provider may divulge the contents of a communication… with the lawful consent of the originator or an addressee or intended recipient of such communication.” The language of this exception did not clarify if the recipient could include a fiduciary of a trust or estate.

In Ajemian v. Yahoo, 478 Mass. 169 (2017) the administrator and siblings of a deceased brother’s estate sought to gain access to information from the son’s Yahoo email account. In that capacity, they sought access to the contents of the e-mail account. While providing certain descriptive information, Yahoo declined to provide access to the account, claiming that it was prohibited from doing so by certain requirements of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts stated in its decision that, “Nothing in this definition would suggest that lawful consent precludes consent by a personal representative on a decedent’s behalf. Indeed, personal representatives provide consent lawfully on a decedent’s behalf in a variety of circumstances under both Federal and common law.” The court relied on Massachusetts’ provisions in the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Act that has been adopted in 36 states including Nebraska and Iowa. This legislation provides a clear state law procedure for fiduciaries to follow to request access to or disclosure of online account contents and other digital assets.

Though the Massachusetts state court ruling isn’t binding on other states, this case will provide valuable precedent and guidance in interpreting and applying a standard that allows estate administrators to gain access to digital information of a deceased that previously was prohibited under strict interpretation of federal law by certain digital service providers.

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IRS Issues Guidance on Health Care Reporting Requirements for 2017

by Joshua A. Diveley

The IRS issued guidance October 17, 2017, indicating Forms 1040 for the 2017 tax year will not be accepted if the taxpayer does not report on the health coverage reporting requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For prior tax years, returns that did not report required ACA information were delayed for processing, but it did not prevent the return from ultimately being processed and any applicable refund from being issued.

In general, the ACA requires taxpayers to obtain minimum essential health insurance coverage for themselves and any dependents. If sufficient coverage is not obtained, the ACA imposes a penalty. Form 1040 directs taxpayers to report the existence or non-existence of essential coverage or whether an exemption from coverage applies.

The IRS guidance is available at: https://www.irs.gov/tax-professionals/aca-information-center-for-tax-professionals.

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IRS Notice Provides Penalty Relief to Certain Partnership Return Filing Taxpayers

by Monte L. Schatz

The IRS has issued Notice 2017-47 that provides penalty relief to partnerships that filed certain untimely returns or untimely requests for extension of time who filed those returns for the first taxable year that began after December 31, 2015.

Section 2006 of the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015 (the Surface Transportation Act), Public Law 114–41, 129 Stat. 443 (2015), amended section 6072 of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) and changed the date by which a partnership must file its annual return. The due date for filing the annual return of a partnership changed from the fifteenth day of the fourth month following the close of the taxable year (April 15 for calendar-year -2- taxpayers) to the fifteenth day of the third month following the close of the taxable year (March 15 for calendar-year taxpayers). The new due date applies to the returns of partnerships for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2015.

Many partnerships failed to timely file their various partnership returns (1065, 1065-B, 8804, 8805 or 7004 Extension requests for any of the other various partnership returns).  The assumption of these taxpayers was that the normal deadlines for their 2016 Partnership returns applied (namely April 18, 2017 for the actual returns and September 15, 2017 for those that filed the Form 7004 extension for any of these returns).    Normally in these circumstances the taxpayer is subject to late filing penalties; however, the new filing deadlines shortening the return filing period by one month resulted in many taxpayers filing late returns and the IRS has provided relief for those late filed returns.

The IRS in Notice 2017-47 has announced relief will be granted automatically for penalties for failure to timely file Forms 1065, 1065-B, 8804, 8805, and any other returns, such as Form 5471, for which the due date is tied to the due date of Form 1065 or Form 1065-B. Partnerships that qualify for relief and have already been assessed penalties can expect to receive a letter within the next several months notifying them that the penalties have been abated.  For reconsideration of a penalty covered by this notice that has not been abated by February 28, 2018, contact the number listed in the letter that notified you of the penalty or call (800) 829-1040 and state that you are entitled to relief under Notice 2017-47.

SOURCE: IRS Guidewire Issue Number N-2017-47

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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Prohibits Certain Arbitration Clauses

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) released a final rule that prohibits certain financial service companies from blocking class action lawsuits with pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action waiver clauses in consumer financial services contracts. The final rule requires arbitration clauses to contain a provision that explains that the arbitration clause cannot be invoked in a class action proceeding and requires parties to submit certain arbitration records to the CFPB whenever an arbitration claim is filed in relation to a consumer that entered a pre-dispute arbitration agreement after the rule’s compliance date.

 

The rule is a consequence of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, in which Congress authorized the CFPB to issues regulations that limit or prohibit the use of arbitration agreements in the financial industry.  However, it is unclear whether the broad scope may adversely impact smaller entities that cannot afford to defend themselves against a class action lawsuit.

 

The rule is set to become effective on September 17, 2017 and applies to consumer financial services contracts that are entered into 180 days after September 17, 2017.  Thus, the rule does not affect existing contracts, except when a new financial services entity becomes a party to an older contract. Institutions should prepare to review and update their contract provisions to comply with the final rule.

 

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Department of Labor Clarifies Stance on Still-Pending Overtime Rule

By James Pieper

In 2016, a dramatic overhaul of the rules for eligibility and payment of overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was on the verge of taking effect before being halted by an injunction issued by a federal judge.

With a new administration taking over the Department of Labor, the status of the overtime revisions has been uncertain.  Nor was it known whether the Department would defend its authority to revise the rules in the subject litigation.

In a brief filed on June 30, the Department’s new leadership finally provided some clarity.  The Department defended its legal authority to adopt a new rule (as had been challenged by the plaintiffs), but did not defend the actual changes proposed by the prior administration.

Accordingly, although the rule remains in legal and administrative limbo, it is clear that it will not take effect in the form proposed in 2016.  Should the courts conclude that the Department does have authority to set the earning threshold (under which overtime must be paid to non-exempt employees) by administrative rule, then the new Department leadership will adopt a threshold lower than the amount of $47,476 that was set prior to the injunction.

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IRS Adopts Simplified Form for Small Nonprofits

By James Pieper

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has adopted a new, shorter online form for small charitable organizations seeking nonprofit status.

The Form 1023-EZ reduces the existing 26-page form to three pages for qualifying groups.  Organizations with gross receipts of $50,000 or less and assets of $250,000 or less will be able to use the streamlined process.

In a media release, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen stated: “This is a common-sense approach that will help reduce lengthy processing delays for small tax-exempt groups and ultimately larger organizations as well. The change cuts paperwork for these charitable groups and speeds application processing so they can focus on their important work.”

The new form can only be completed online and will help the IRS clear its backlog of more than 60,000 pending nonprofit applications.

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FINRA Clarifies Rules Concerning Social Media and Digital Communications

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) issued a regulatory notice that addresses the use of digital communications and social media by FINRA member firms. FINRA recognized the expansion of social media and digital communication by broker-dealers, which prompted this guidance, updating the 2011 guidance. The new regulatory notice focuses on text messaging, personal versus business communications, third-party content, hyperlinks, native advertising, testimonials, endorsements, and links to BrokerCheck.

The updated guidance addresses the recordkeeping requirements in Rule 17a-4, which ensures certain communications are preserved. FINRA reminds firms that sharing or linking to specific content, such as a video or article, is a communication by the firm subject to Rule 2210 filing and content requirements. FINRA also clarifies that linking to or sharing an independent third-party website may be subject to Rule 2210 requirements, depending on whether the hyperlink is “ongoing” and whether the firm has influence over the content.

FINRA member broker-dealers may use native advertising, but it must comply with Rule 2210. This means that the advertising must be balanced, fair, and not misleading. Additionally, if a firm arranges for an individual to make a comment or post that promotes the firm, its products, or its services, the communication must comply with Rule 2210 and the firm must identify the communication as an advertisement. Similarly, FINRA reiterated that posts by customers or other third parties on the firm’s website or social media sites are not communications with the public and are not subject to the Rule 2210 requirements. However, if the firm or one of its registered representatives “likes” or shares any of the comments the customers or third parties post, the content becomes subject to the communication requirements of Rule 2210.

In light of these guidelines, FINRA members are advised to review their digital communication policy to ensure compliance with the recently issued regulatory notices.

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