When a person passes away, what happens to his email account and all the messages and sensitive information that reside in it? Unlike the shoebox in the attic that any living family member can get their hands on, online accounts are password protected and hence present a problem. Web email services owned by internet giants such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have different view on this issue. The question to be considered is: is it honorable to scour through the belongings of a dead person and read his personal emails or messages? Google and Microsoft say ‘Yes’, Yahoo says ‘No’.
Google and Microsoft have a policy of keeping your data after you die and letting your next of kin or the executor of your estate access it. Unfortunately, there is no way for users to avoid this from happening and no recourse under existing laws. Yahoo, on the other hand, strictly disallows access to a user’s account.
Read below the different policies and procedure of gaining access to a deceased person’s account.
Gmail allows the next of kin to apply for access to a deceased user's email account, but the person would have to prove their own identity and supply a death certificate as well as proof of an email conversation between them and the deceased.
If you are trying to access a deceased person’s Gmail account, you have to send in the following materials:
- Your full name, physical mailing address, and verifiable email address.
- A photocopy of your government issued ID or driver’s license.
- The Gmail address of the individual who passed away.
- The full header from an email message that you have received at your verifiable email address, from the Gmail address in question. (To obtain the header from a message in Gmail, open the message, click the down arrow next to Reply, at the top-right of the message pane, and select 'Show original.') The full headers will appear in a new window. Copy everything from 'Delivered-To:' through the 'References:' line.
- The entire contents of the message.
- Proof of death
- One of the following: a) if the decedent was 18 or older, provide a Probate- or other Court Order stating that you are the lawful representative of the deceased's estate or b) if the decedent was under the age of 18 and you are the parent of the individual, provide a copy of the decedent’s birth certificate.
These need to be mailed to:
Attention: Gmail User Support- Decedents’ Accounts
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043
Or faxed to: 650-644-0358
After you have sent all the information to the above address, Google will need 30 days to validate and process your submission. More information on this page.
Gmail does not delete the deceased user's account, but the next of kin could choose to do so after gaining access to it.
Windows Live Hotmail (Microsoft)
Windows Live Hotmail has a policy of deleting email accounts if they are not logged into for 270 days. If you die, your next of kin would be able to access your account within that period by proving their identity and supplying a death certificate.
To claim a user’s account, you have to first send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Upon receipt of the email, Microsoft will preserve the specified account for a period of six months during which you have to furnish the required documents, which are:
- A photocopy of the death certificate for the user
- Paperwork stating that you are the benefactor or executor to the deceased's estate and/or that you have Power of Attorney and are next-of-kin.
- A photocopy of your driver's license or a government issued identification.
- A document with answers to the following questions about the account, for verification purposes:
- Account name
- First and Last name on the account
- Date of Birth
- City, state and zip code
- Approximate date of account creation
- Approximate last date of sign in
- A physical mailing address
All documentation should be faxed to 425-708-0096 or send via postal mail to:
Attn: Online Services Custodian of Records
1065 La Avenida, Building 4
Mountain View, CA, 94043
Once the verification is completed, Microsoft will send the requested account information on a CD-ROM via mail courier. More information on this page.
Unlike Google and Microsoft, Yahoo’s policy is that they will not grant next of kin access to deceased users’ accounts unless there is a court order from a judge. The deceased user's next of kin, however, can ask for the account to be closed, but Yahoo will not give them access to it. I don’t know about others, but I like Yahoo’s stance on this.
From Yahoo’s terms of service:
Terms of service #27: No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability.
You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.
A Yahoo spokesperson said:
The commitment Yahoo! makes to every person who signs up for a Yahoo! Mail account is to treat their email as a private communication and to treat the content of their messages as confidential.
Internet users who want to be sure their email and other online accounts are accessible to their legal heirs may want to work with their attorneys to plan an offline process for such access as part of their estate planning process.
Facebook has a policy similar to Yahoo’s. It believes in respecting and protecting a person’s privacy even after the person’s death. Coming from Facebook, this is quite ironic. From Facebook's Help page:
Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honour requests from close family members to close the account completely.
Facebook also has a feature that allows friends and family members to “memorialize” the profiles of deceased users. Once the user's death is confirmed, Facebook will set the privacy settings so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. They will also remove sensitive information such as contact information and status updates. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into it in the future, while still enabling friends and family to leave posts on the profile Wall in remembrance.
To memorialize a Facebook account, contact them through this page.
How to Plan Ahead
In the online world, there isn't a standard procedure for how to access your loved one's online accounts. The best way to ensure that your online accounts fall into the right hands once you are gone is to follow Yahoo’s advice and create a will, or assign a heir to your online accounts digitally through services such as Entrustet.
Entrustet is a free service that helps you take stock of all your digital assets and assign an heir to access them when you pass away. Just set up a free account and then add all the accounts you want to be passed on. You can then add heirs for your various online account, individually. For instance, you can pass your YouTube account to Sam while your Twitter account to Judy.
A neat service, but storing all your password information in one place is a bit unnerving. A very bad practice, actually.
The other option you have is to set up a dead man’s switch. Dead man’s switch is a form of safety feature, usually integrated into machines, which triggers itself and shuts down the machine if the human operator becomes incapacitated. They are commonly used in locomotives, aircraft, subway trains, freight elevators etc as a form of fail-safe.
You can setup a Dead Man’s Switch digitally. Just signup for the free service and compose an email for your intended heir. The emails are encrypted and stored. Dead Man's Switch will then email you often asking you to click on a link to verify you are hale and hearty. If something were to happen to you and you are unable to verify you are alive, the “switch” will activate and the stored emails will be sent to the recipients.
The service allows you to specify custom intervals per email so you can specify some emails to be sent more quickly than others or postpone the activation of the switch, which is necessary when you go on vacation without internet access. More details can be read in the original post.
So have you planned for your afterlife? Share with us.