We get a newsletter occasionally from one of our lawyers that contains general interest legal items. The last one we received addressed an issue that I'd never considered before. What happens to our email after we die?
Two real-life examples demonstrate the potential problems. The first example is that of the parents of a Marine who was killed in Iraq. They wanted to access his email as a way to remember him, preserve something of his life and words. His ISP denied their request, citing privacy concerns. The parents did win access in probate court. The second example is that of a daughter needing access to her father's email account after he died. Evidently, he kept even the addresses of friends in his email and his daughter had no way of notifying them of her father's death. Again, she was denied access by her father's ISP due to privacy concerns.
Who owns your email, the ISP or you? There are vast discrepancies in the ways ISPs handle survivorship issues and the best thing to do is to read your ISP's privacy statement. I use Gmail for my email (as opposed to my ISP). I looked over the privacy information and did not see this issue addressed anywhere.
I still have much thinking through to do on the privacy/property ramifications of this issue, but I am clear about one thing: I DO want my immediate family (husband and kids) access to my email in the event of my death.
If you know more about this issue than I do (and I'm quite certain you do), please let me know your thoughts.
ETA: It seems to follow that if something is worth protecting as a matter of privacy, then it belongs to that someone; it's their private property. It will certainly help them to have specific instructions to follow in a will, but if instructions are not available, the matter should be settled very straightforwardly in probate. I'm just not seeing how other people who use that ISP should be worried about their personal privacy.