Turkish Court Issues Ruling on Digital Inheritance

Background

Similar to many other jurisdictions, the notion of digital inheritance is a new concept in Turkish law. To date, there has been no legal definition or separate legislative measure for digital inheritance. However, a number of arguments have been present that digital inheritance in Turkey should be subject to the laws relating to wills and estates, as some digital assets in particular now bear many similarities to other forms of property and hold value that can be transferred to inheritors.

What has the new ruling introduced?

The ruling of the 6th Civil Chamber of the Antalya Regional Court of Justice dated 13/11/2020 (Decision No: 2020/1149 - 2020/905) concerned a case filed by inheritors (the spouse and child of the deceased) to determine that a number of digital assets were a part of the deceased’s estate. The digital assets that were the subject of the claim included an email and iCloud account.

The court of first instance had based its decision on the grounds that the inheritors could access information such as photographs and videos on the deceased’s phone through other means and that allowing the email and iCloud account to be determined as part of the estate would infringe upon the right to privacy.

The Regional Court of Justice ruled against the court of first instance, stating that it was necessary to determine whether such digital assets were in fact a part of the deceased’s estate and that the court erred in issuing a decision on the ground of the protection of the right to privacy.

While the Regional Court of Justice stated that a technical and legal assessment would be required to determine if the claimed accounts belonged to do deceased and whether providing the inheritors with access to the information in the accounts would be legal, its reasoning clearly indicated that digital assets should be included in the estate. The reasoning went beyond the email and iCloud account that formed the basis of the claim, stating that digital assets such as social media account and digital wallets should all be considered when determining the estate of a deceased person. Accordingly, the Regional Court of Justice stated that Article 599 of the Turkish Civil Code as it applied to the issue of succession should also apply to digital assets.

Impact of the new ruling

As stated in the reasoning of the Regional Court of Justice, digital assets have become a vital part of modern life with the potential to hold great financial and/or emotional value. Therefore, it is clear that either by way of interpretation of existing principles or through passing separate legislation the issue of digital inheritance must be addressed.

This recent ruling has opened the door for digital assets to be included within the determination of estates. By applying the relevant provisions of the Turkish Civil Code, the Regional Court of Justice has also provided the grounds to comparatively extend the principles that apply to succession and inheritance to the realm of digital assets.

While this will be a welcome development for inheritors wanting to access electronic platforms and accounts for practical and nostalgic reasons, it will be interesting to see how the implementation of this approach will take shape in situations where other third parties derive value from such digital assets – such as agencies representing influencers.

Additionally, even though the Regional Court of Justice reasoned that the court of first instance erred by rejecting the case on the grounds of the right to privacy, it did state that a determination would need to be made regarding whether providing inheritors direct access to passwords/accounts would be lawful. Therefore, while such digital assets will be determined as a part of the estate, accessing the assets themselves may prove problematic depending on the assessment of the courts.

With thanks to Simay Yetimoğlu for her assistance on this article.