More email after death

Interesting comments and stories from our readers

Some interesting messages from readers after our last issue regarding access to email accounts after the death of the user.

In that article we deliberately kept our comments general – the legal situation for executors or estate administrators varies between countries and states.  Even the terminology is different and, in the end, we’re talking about email not the minutiae of probate law.

Time limit on email accounts

Most email storage is deleted after a period of inactivity (30, 60 or 90 days).  Many readers were disturbed about the inactivity time limit on email accounts and especially the fact that the inactivity might not be the date of death but some date earlier.

Lynda writes:

When you have a death in the family, it takes almost 10 days just to deal with the burial, getting final info, papers signed, transferred etc. and the travel that is usually part of that. You lose a week there. Plus most of us work – and most bereavement is only 3 days so you HAVE to go back to work and try to fit all the tasks as executor (most of us do NOT have estate managers).

My point – 30 days is VERY short amount of time. And I know that’s up to each email company. What does that mean? It means email needs to move to the TOP of your stack of things to do, not the bottom.

I am STILL dealing with things from my dad’s death … and had he had an email account, I would never have thought to deal with it right away. I would have had it way down the list. And probably would not have recovered anything in it.

And you are so right – a LOT of information the family might need is in email.

Aside from any business or financial information on the email accounts – there may well be important personal messages that could be a comfort to family and friends.

Chris writes:

In 2005 my father died and I dealt with his estate. He used email, but not for anything of major import, so I did not hit any practical problems. He used a POP server so I could get access to anything he had downloaded before he went into hospital, but I never got access to anything on his ISP, and disregarded them.

In law, the ISP should not grant any access to confidential data until probate is granted, and as they realise your points about web statements, they will probably clamp down on knowingly granting access without seeing probate. The one exception is for financial institutions to provide valuations of assets so that the information that the Probate office requires can be provided by the executor. In my case, it was over 5 weeks after he entered hospital before I could even start to write those letters, because of time spent in hospital, sorting funeral and other things that had to be done. I would imagine that many executors experience longer delays. 

Because of the need to provide a full estimate of the value of the estate, it will invariably take months, not weeks, to obtain probate. Hence a 30 day purge period  is a real concern.

Even a 60 or 90 day period isn’t enough in many cases.  Banks and other asset holders have policies where the asset is ‘frozen’ until the legal formalities are concluded.  Webmail services don’t have such policies, if you can’t satisfy their requirements within the period of inactivity then the information is lost.


Power of Attorney?

Dick asks about the requirement of some webmail providers to produce a ‘Power of Attorney’ from the deceased.

What good would a power of attorney do, as these powers automatically expire upon the death of the person who granted them!

We wondered about that too – a Power of Attorney is normally only active while the person is alive.  Upon death it lapses and control moves to the executor or administrator (once confirmed by a court).  We suspect the webmail providers (aware of the time limit on inactive accounts) accept the PoA as evidence of the deceased’s wishes even though the document isn’t legally active.

With modern medical care and the ability to prolong life for some time, it’s a good idea to have a Power of Attorney to let someone handle your business affairs if you’re incapacitated.  That document (or a separate one  in some jurisdictions) can give someone authority to make health and care decisions for you.  Either or both are worth considering – ask a qualified legal adviser about the laws in your area.

Be Prepared

John writes:

Your Email Essentials article handled a difficult subject well – I’d never even thought about access to email or other web services after death.  That’s something I need to deal with both as a father and a son – I may die or be asked to handle things when my parents pass away.

The overall message is ‘Be Prepared’ – leave details for yourself and make sure you have them for anyone you might be responsible for.

I appreciate you tackling the topic, it should help many people – certainly my family will benefit. “

You’re welcome, John.  And you’re right, the main message is to leave some documentation and account access details plus try to get some for any elderly relatives who might need assistance.  It’s not an easy subject to raise but can save hassles later at a difficult time.