Email after death

What happens if you need to access webmail for someone who has died? And what should you do to prepare?

An interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald about access to email accounts after the account holder dies.


This caught Peter’s eye because in a previous decade (pre-email) he worked in managing the assets and wills for deceased estates. He’s seen plenty of cases where access to information or accounts has been difficult. The job requires a bit of detective work through paperwork, looking for clues to accounts, assets or bills. We know this is a topic that many people don’t like to think about, but it’s important nonetheless.

Kim Powell asked Yahoo, Hotmail and Google about their policies. While the policies don’t require a court appointed executor or administrator (a death certificate is the major requirement) there are other things that might not be available. For example, there might not be a power of attorney available (as required by Google) or the estate manager probably doesn’t have an email message sent from the account.

Email is being used by more and more people for more than casual communication. Online address books can be important for contacting friends and relatives.

Banks and other companies are encouraging people to sign up for statements via email or a web site. There might not be any real paper details left behind to help manage an estate.


Clock is ticking – but when did it start?

While the major webmail companies have some policy for access to the accounts of deceased persons email, most webmail systems will automatically delete all content if it’s not accessed within say 30 or 60 days.

That means there’s a deadline for getting the paperwork to the webmail provider before the account is purged. When that deadline calculation starts is unknown. The last date the account was accessed might not (and is probably not) the date of death – the person might have been in hospital or very ill for days or weeks.

And that’s assuming those left behind know that the webmail account even exists. Many people have a collection of email addresses and accounts – not just one.

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ISP accounts

One important type of email account not mentioned in the SMH article are those held by Internet Service Providers – your cable, broadband or dial-up provider.

Most likely the email account will be deleted if the connection account is closed. Administrators of an estate need to make sure that email storage is preserved before the connection account is terminated.


Corporate accounts

Network administrators should have a way to access all email accounts if the staffer leaves the firm for any reason.

For small businesses it’s important that the owner leaves network and computer access details in case of emergency.


Re-direction

Usually an estate manager will arrange for postal mail (letters, bills, checks etc) to be re-directed to them.

Ideally email will also be either re-directed or the manager will check the email account for a few months. Obviously that requires access to the account via login and password.


Bypassing the rules

In theory, an estate manager will notify all concerned about the death of an account holder. For example a bank is notified and the account ‘frozen’ until the legal requirements are met. Sadly there are no such policies for email and web site access – certainly no consistent policies. A time will come when webmail providers come to terms with the full extent of their responsibilities to customers – but we’re not there yet.

In practice I would not be surprised if some managers try to access the email accounts directly. That might be fully legal (some might say, not ethical) but it’s expedient given the lack of consistent and practical policies.

For the few cases we’ve heard of difficulties in accessing email accounts for the deceased, I suspect there are many other cases where the family or estate managers manage to gain access themselves. The webmail or other service never knows that the person died at all.


Keep secure records

All this is to explain that it’s important to keep some secure record of your login details and accounts.

This isn’t just in case you get run over by the proverbial bus. You might forget the details yourself! Those of us who do a lot of computer based work need to remember that those left behind might not be as internet savvy.

One possibility is to create a password- protected Word document and update it from time to time. Leave the document somewhere accessible (eg a USB key) and tell appropriate people about both were the document is stored and the password.

You might extend that to store medical records, copies of important papers (birth and marriage certificates) that you might need.

And don’t forget to record details of how to access your computer so all the email and documents stored on the hard drive can be seen.