Is your email account a part of your estate plan? This might seem like a very strange question, but take a moment and consider everything that is stored in that email account - personal correspondence, online bill paying, and professional information, among other things. If these items were kept mostly on paper or in a filing cabinet, information about how to access them would certainly be a part of an estate plan, and it would also likely be easier for families to gain access if it was forgotten. However, with online accounts we bring in agreements with third parties and laws governing information on the internet. When that happens, the situation becomes more complex and it is harder for relatives to find the information that they need.
There is one particularly dramatic case in which family members spent seven years in a battle with Yahoo! only to finally have their claim to the information extinguished by a state appeals court on the basis of the contract between the owner of the email account and Yahoo!. They could still access the information as administrators of the estate, but that case is still pending and relies on the Stored Communications Act, a federal law.
To avoid this complicated situation, providing specific permission and information on how to access email accounts and other online accounts can be a great first step. Next, storing that information in a secure place and making sure that it is available only when needed will help protect online security while providing solutions for loved ones.
Source: Forbes, “When Heirs Must Battle for Access to E-mail Accounts,” Deborah Jacobs, Dec. 11, 2013.