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Who owns your e-mail after you die? 13

A recent legal fight in the U.S. raises many questions about ownership of emails after a person dies. When Lieutenant Corporal Justin Ellsworth was killed in Iraq, his father asked Yahoo! Mail to provide him Justin’s emails in order to create a memorial for his son. Yahoo refused to give up the emails due to Privacy issues.

The question is, who owns your emails after you have died? In the past, if you wrote in a journal, whoever receives your possessions will receive your journal, and they have the right to go through your journal if they wish. But when it comes to electronic mail, it is a grey area and a good discussion topic.

It’s a sensitive subject, because viewing your email after you are deceased could change what people thought of you or could reveal secrets that could hurt the people that remember you for who you were to them. I think some things are better left unread, but I also think there are circumstances where it may be appropriate for a loved one to see your email.

I think that your email password should be left in your will if that’s what you choose. If you choose not to leave your password, then nobody should have the right to view your mail. The down side to this is that it would be an administrative nightmare to update your will if your email password changes. But I think ultimately it should be up to the deceased person to decide how they want to handle the situation.

Would you want your email to be read by your family after you die?

13 thoughts on “Who owns your e-mail after you die?

  1. marybishop Jan 12,2005 2:35 am

    You say: I think that your email password should be left in your will if that’s what you choose.

    I agree 100%. No-one ever thinks they are going to die. We all think we will live forever. But there is nothing more personal than our e-mails. It belongs to us even if we are dead.

    If we choose to allow others to view our mail — great. But I would personally never want someone pawing through my mail electronic or pony express.

    As I watch our freedoms wane, I feel more and more strongly about protecting the little freedom we have left.

    I was young in the 60s where a new freedom grew and flourished and now watch it die from over-tending.

    Ergo, I agree with Yahoo and you!

  2. Jim Jan 12,2005 2:49 am

    Granny, Glad to see we finally agree on something ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for stopping by again, I’m still in the process of moving all my postings from my old site, but after that is done, I’d like to read through your blog too.


  3. marybishop Jan 12,2005 3:35 am

    Jim have you gone here?

    Wouldn’t that look good on your blog?

    Tried to get it on mine but screwed it up royally. I’m sure we agree on many, many things. Your blog is one of the best. And, Granny knows of what she is speaking.

  4. Chellie Jan 12,2005 11:20 am

    Would be like having someone read my diary or raid my undie drawer. Way too personal for me.

    Made me think about another side of the coin.
    I have often thought of creating a list, that in the event of my death..please inform via e-mail…sorta thing. I have had many friends over my years on the internet just disappear without a trace. Would be nice to know it wasn’t from a freak bus accident hehe

  5. Anonymous Jan 12,2005 1:56 pm

    I don’t care about someone reading my emails after I die.The embarassing part would be when someone goes on my computer and sees what websites I have been on.

  6. Jim Jan 12,2005 5:33 pm

    Reply to Chellie:

    I totally agree on the list. I often wondered what would happen if I died suddenly, whether somebody would go through my MSN list and tell everyone on my list, or whether I would just disappear to them without a trace.

  7. Jim Jan 12,2005 5:36 pm

    That’s true, reading the website cache could be embarrassing ๐Ÿ˜‰ I mean, what if somebody found out that I was looking into ordering the Austin Powers Penis Enlarger from the Internet? People would always remember me that way ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. Anonymous Jan 12,2005 8:45 pm

    Reply to Jim:
    I (barry/annonymous)was possibly referring to someone finding this website on my list.Oh how embarrassing!Agree?

  9. Jim Jan 12,2005 11:15 pm

    Granny, I would like to look into putting the CostOfWar link on my page. I’ll check it out in more detail tonight. Thanks for the info.

  10. marybishop Jan 13,2005 3:18 pm

    Hope you have better luck than I did, Jim. I kept getting a rectangle that took up half my blog.

  11. Jim Jan 13,2005 4:24 pm

    Reply to Barry: Why you little!

  12. WhyNot Jan 14,2005 6:38 am

    Excellent question, Jim.

    I thought about it for 1/2 hour, read all the comments, and I’m still not certain.

    For instance, your point about password sounds quite logical, i.e. if you left your password in your will, then you clearly indicate you are willing to leave access to your email. But there are still 2 hicks with this:

    1. Is there one person in a million who does? (I mean of those who would want to). Ok, you might rigtly say “yeah but it’s their problem if they don’t think of it”. True, but this bring the second point:

    2. You point out that physical journals automatically get passed on. No need for a password. So, is it fair to expect a password for access to the equivalent electronic journal?

    (I’m trying to reason purely on the assumption that we all think it just and fair next of kins have access to your hard copy journal, and therefore that we are trying to find which way would implement the equivalent in regard to electronic mail).

    I’m trying to slip back in the hard copy journal mode. I suppose the way out to prevent your private stuff being automatically given away to your kins, would be to insert a clause in your will, such as “all documents in drawer A should be given to my kids, all those in drawer B should be destroyed without being read”. In other words, there is no password to access the lot, but you can kind of *password* to DENY access to part or all of it.

    So perhaps a system by which the default would be access to all your email, except for those in folders specified in you will (if any)? That would make it closer to the equivalent hard copy situation. In practice, it would mean some independant person + witness, upon reading your will, gaining access to your email, and deleting all folders you specified in your will.

    After all, if you think of it: why do we need passwords? The comparison with hard copy journals hardly stands: you don’t need passwords for them because nobody can see them. Only if your apartment is broken into, and even then your average robber has better things to steal than your journal. In other words, you don’t need a *password* because you are already safe.

    On the other hand electronic email is very different. Quite clearly if your email client wasn’t password protected, you’d be hacked into by 5000 ppl every day and you wouldn’t even know it.

    What I’m trying to get at (yeah I know, I tend to waffle on) is: I don’t think we can equate the non-divulgion of a password with the intent NOT to leave access to your kins. A password is an absolute necessity just to be able to use your electronic mail, it shouldn’t be regarded as a willful intention of blocking access to your kins after your death.

    In conclusion (yes, I can hear the big sigh all the way from here :-)), I’d say:

    Access by your kins to your electronic diary should be automatic, just like any of your material possessions – which include your hard copy diary. Except for what is specified in your will as NOT to be passed on, but destroyed.

    Howzat for an argumentative bastard, eh? ๐Ÿ™‚
    PS: I still haven’t written one will in my life. But regarding my mail, it’s ok if I get run over by a bus tomorrow cuz she knows my password anyway, LOL. And if I should die before her, I’d rather her have all of it, warts and all, for I think she would forgive me for the bits she might not like, and the overal thing would be a great support in her coping with my absence.

  13. Jim Jan 25,2005 5:39 am

    reply to WhyNot.

    Great argument man. There are many great points in here, and you bring up a very valid point about hard copy journals in comparison to electronic journals/email.

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