The German Federal Court of Justice (BGH) has made a landmark ruling stating that heirs should have access to their deceased relatives’ Facebook accounts – indicating that inheritance rights surpass data privacy.

The parents of a deceased 15 years old girl who was killed by a train in 2012 requested access to their daughter’s Facebook account in an attempt to establish if their daughter’s death had been an accident or suicide. The information was also required to establish if the train driver was entitled to compensation if it was ascertained that her death was suicide. Facebook refused to grant them access, as they only allow relatives of a deceased user to delete the account or turn it into a memorial page.

The case had been heard in lower courts which did not offer clarity. In 2015, a lower court in Germany ruled in favour of the parents having access, agreeing that under German inheritance law, Facebook data equated to private correspondence. The decision was overturned by the German Court of Appeal who ruled wholly on Facebooks claim that exposing the girl’s account to her parents would compromise any Facebook contact’s constitutional right of telecommunications privacy and that the German Federal Basic Law entitled data privacy even after death.

Following the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018 – data privacy is very much at the forefront of any decisions made, therefore the decision of the BGH offers some welcome clarity on the issue. The verdict, given on the 12th July 2018, will hopefully offer certainty with regards to the rights of heirs after the death of a relative. Presiding judge Ulrich Herrmann clarified that correspondence such as letters and personal diaries that heirs are entitled to under the German Constitution, also extends to digital content. The decision offers some form of closure on a distressing case that has lasted years and has set an important precedent for future cases.