Digital Life: OK to read deceased loved one's e-mails?

Digital Life: OK to read deceased loved one’s e-mails?

Q: My mom died unexpectedly several years back, and I’ve had her old laptop since then. Now it’s time to get rid of it, so I’m purging it of all old files. I was looking through her e-mails, which is filled with correspondence she had with family members and friends about everything from national politics to family squabbles. Many of her correspondents are also now dead, but some are still living. I mentioned that I’ve started reading her old e-mails to my brother, who was appalled. He said this is a terrible violation of mom’s privacy. I say it’s more like discovering a bundle of old letters in the attic. Isn’t it OK to read someone’s correspondence after they’re gone?

– Name withheld

A: I mentioned your question to a friend, who told me: “My mom didn’t necessarily think of her inbox the same way she did a box of letters carefully bound up in a ribbon for posterity, but I don’t see any issue with her looking at these e-mails.” I’m guessing that you’d be happy to know that when I posed your question on my Facebook page to see what others thought, most sided with you and not your brother.

I agree that there’s a difference between old letters and old e-mails, but regardless of the medium this stuff is private and personal. There may be new insights into your mother long buried in her old correspondence, but there’s always the possibility of uncovering new hurts there as well, whether in cursive or Helvetica.

Instead of focusing on the medium, ask yourself these questions:

1. Will they help you understand your mother better or situations differently? You may find answers in that treasure trove of e-mails. Then again, you may only discover more questions.

2. How do you want to remember your mother? Who knows what you might find, especially if you’re digging back into “family squabbles.” To paraphrase the aphorism, some things are better left unread.

3. How might the e-mails affect your relationships with others? For example, your brother may have confided something to mom and fully expected it to remain between them. Seeing information not intended for your eyes may change your feelings about him — and vice versa.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t plan very well for dying, which is why we have bundles of letters in attics and gazillions of old e-mails (and other docs) on our many devices. One difference: We’re more likely to curate or destroy letters than to go through our hard drives, which leaves more digital detritus to be discovered. Agreeing, one Facebook poster commented: “With letters, people threw away the bulk and kept those that made them feel warm and fuzzy. I think a lot of people don’t trash their e-mails, so the whole great mess of life is there.” Indeed.

Obviously, it would have been helpful for both you and your brother to have had a conversation with your mother about her wishes when it came to e-mails, letters and other personal material, but that’s not possible with an unexpected death (and it’s not always a comfortable conversation even with those who are expecting it). Now you’re at an impasse, and my advice is: When in doubt, don’t. And, if I were your brother I’d get my hands on that laptop and delete everything as quickly as possible.

For everyone else, digital estate planning has never been more important. Your next of kin will need passwords for your financial and social media accounts. Decide ahead of time whether you also want that to extend to everything else you’ve got squirreled away on your desktop or laptop. This is not just for the elderly, either. We know not the hour.

Who will get your iTunes when you die?

New Smartphone App to Assist with Digital Estate Planning

Previous blog entries by Ian Hull and Suzana Popovic-Montag have featured information about the increasing relevance of digital assets with respect to estate planning.

Online programs such as Google Inactive Account Manager, Legacy Locker, and Estate Map, offer services including the storage of electronic passwords, post-death management of accounts, and delivery to a “digital estate trustee” of related information.

Surviving loved ones frequently are faced with challenges when trying to access or delete online accounts under the name of a deceased person.  What further complicates the matter is that few jurisdictions have rules with respect to the release of information required to access to family members or friends, absent a court order.  Further, the policies of social media companies differ with respect to what documentation they require in order to facilitate access to, or removal of, digital information stored within a computer or the internet.

However, a newly-developed estate planning tool is now available to all smartphone users.  The beta version of Estate Assist launched on October 1, 2014.  This program features the storage of online passwords, including log-in information for any social media accounts, online login information for paperless bank accounts, and digital medical records, which can all be accessed remotely.

Estate Assist alerts a person selected by the user that an Estate Assist account exists.  When that person verifies that the user has died, the program will release information regarding accounts and digital documents.

Of course, using programs like Estate Assist to help transfer information with respect to information stored online do not represent a substitute to lawyer-assisted estate planning.  However, such programs may be useful and accessible supplements to a comprehensive estate plan, which includes a Last Will and Testament that may also address the issue of digital assets.

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Social Media: Life after death on the Internet

Social Media: Life after death on the Internet

By William E. Lewis Jr. For, Sept 19, 2014 –  Facing the loss of a family member or friend is often devastating. Imagine the constant reminder of the dearly departed as they appear through social media on your Facebook Timeline or Google+ Circles, in your Twitter Feed or MySpace stream, or even at work on your LinkedIn profile.

I was reminded recently in a private message that one of the highly respected politicians receiving birthday greetings from me on Facebook had died over a year ago. A quick update to “Happy Birthday in Heaven” hopefully fixed this.

Many wonder about life after death through social media. In reality – as much as practicality – there is no such thing as a digital death. This is especially so when the deceased friends is received as a “friend recommendation” through an automated program or mutual friends.

FacebookGoogle+TwitterMySpaceLinkedIn and many other major social media sites have policies regarding the death of its users. Are you familiar with them?

From the dark age of sending a simple email or text message to an age of information overload where we publish our entire lives through timelines, circles, or tweets, many social media users provide and tell all. From status updates, photographs and blog posts to complete personal histories, our entire lives have become an open book.

Will your Facebook friends, Twitter followers or those in your Google+ Circle know when you die? With MySpace itself dying a slow death, will anyone notice you gone? As for LinkedIn, a few too many profile views may eventually reveal the fact that you are dead.

As a social media expert with over 132,000 “friends” spread across several dozen social media networks, one of them — Barry Epstein, of Boca Raton, Fla. — recently advised that he was closing the accounts of his deceased son.  Only aware of Facebook “memorial” policies, I was prompted to investigate the treatment of deceased user’s social media accounts and what is done to preserve, memorialize or delete them following death.

“Social media can be useful for memorializing the deceased,” Epstein told EyesOnNews.  “Away from the brief memorial service, people use social media as a way to remember, share their thoughts and to deal with the grief of losing a loved one or friend.”

With more than 1.2 million social media users dying annually, family, friends, social media services and the Internet are left to deal with a deceased user’s digital bits. When we die, who takes control of our social media networks?

“A memorial or community page would be a suitable alternative to keeping the love alive,” Ruth Swissa, clinical director for Bridges to Change, in Fort Lauderdale, told EyesOnNews. “From the behavioral perspective, some people like going through old posts and photos to help them remember the good times. A memorial page can celebrate the deceased for eternity.”


With over a one billion users worldwide, Facebook was not the first social media platform to establish a policy for deceased users but is among the highest in profile because of the way it addressed the issue.  Rather than allow a family member to take control of a deceased user’s account, Facebook instead decided to take things a step further and allowed them to be memorialized or deleted entirely.

A memorialized Facebook Timeline preserves the deceased user’s online existence so that only confirmed friends can visit their page, view prior status updates or photographs and leave posts of remembrance.

When Facebook converts an account into a memorial, the deceased user is no longer suggested as a friend to others and their Timeline automatically becomes private to everyone but confirmed friends. Personal identifiers and contact information are also removed to prevent hacking and to respect privacy.

To memorialize or delete a Facebook account, a family member or friend completes a special contact form providing proof of death. This can include an obituary, news article or Internet link. Unlike other social media services, Facebook allows non-family members to perform this task, which is helpful in situations where the deceased user’s friends are more Internet-savvy than family.

Google+ or Google Plus

Unlike the social media giants of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn, Google provides a number of services including email, blogging and its own version of social media fraternization through Google+.

One of the benefits to having all of Google’s services tied to a single Gmail account is that the policies and procedures of the company generally cover all aspects of an individual’s existence with them. Such is the case when a user passes away. According to Google, everything is handled centrally and concerned parties just need to go through the steps once in order to gain access to an account.

In order to access or deactivate a deceased user’s Google account, the authorized representative of an estate must apply directly to Google. In the strictest of all deceased user policies, one must remember that Google is not just someone’s social networking profile, it is access to his or her email, contacts, and everything else associated with a Google account, including Google+.

In a process that consists of two stages, Google requires the authorized representative to provide their full name, physical mailing address, an email address, a photocopy of their government-issued driver’s license or ID card, the Gmail address of the deceased user and a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate.

All requests can be forwarded to Google by fax at 650-644-0358 or by regular mail to: Google Inc. Gmail User Support – Decedents’ Accounts, c/o Google Custodian of Records, 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA 94043.

Following receipt of the request, Google will review it and determine whether an authorized representative can move to the next step of the process by submitting additional material or obtaining legal process including an order from a U.S. court of competent jurisdiction.

After being allowed access to the Google account of a deceased user, the authorized representative can then downgrade the Google+ profile or delete the account entirely.


Similar to the Facebook policy that allows for a deceased user’s account be deleted or memorialized when a family member or friend has passed away, Twitter will work with an “authorized person” of the deceased who has been designated to function on behalf of the estate.

To successfully deactivate the Twitter account of a deceased user, an authorized person must provide the user name or profile page link of the Twitter user, a copy of the death certificate of the deceased user, a copy of the authorized person’s government-issued ID and a signed and notarized statement which includes personal information about the authorized person.

Required information from an authorized person includes his or her first and last name, email address, current contact details, relationship with the deceased, the requested action, a link to any online obituary or a copy of the actual obituary from a newspaper.

All requests can be forwarded to Twitter by fax at 415-222-9958 or by regular postal mail to: Twitter, Inc. c/o: Trust & Safety, 1355 Market St., Suite 900, San Francisco, CA 94103. According to Twitter, all further communication will be conducted through email. Additional concerns can be forwarded to


As one of the oldest social media services around, MySpace has a deceased user policy that is more of a standardized policy of deletion rather than memorializing like Facebook.

To delete a MySpace profile, a family member must contact MySpace via email with proof of death and the user’s unique identification number. A username or profile link is generally not acceptable.

“Unfortunately, we can’t let you access, edit or delete any of the content or settings on the user’s profile yourself, but we’ll be sure to review and remove any content you find objectionable,” reads the MySpace policy.

In addition, MySpace does not adequately address privacy concerns and may subject the deceased user’s account to data breaches as hackers may attempt to access an account without authorization. Contained on MySpace’s policy page is an admission that anyone with access to the deceased user’s email account can simply “retrieve the password through the ‘forgot password link’ and make necessary changes.”

The MySpace policy for deletion is not particularly helpful for older relatives that are not Internet savvy and makes it almost impossible to remove a deceased user’s existence from this social media service.


Easier than the death notification policies of Facebook, Google+, Twitter and MySpace where a family member or friend must make an official request for memorialization or deletion, anyone can notify LinkedIn about the profile of a deceased member.

With more than 200 million members in 200 countries and territories around the globe, LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network of resources. According to their website, LinkedIn will delete the profile of a deceased colleague, classmate or connection upon receipt of proof of death. There is no provision to memorialize the profile of a deceased LinkedIn user.

To delete the profile of a LinkedIn user, a “Verification of Death Form” must be submitted online through DocuSign. Proof of death in the form of a death certificate, obituary, news article or Internet link must be included.

LinkedIn is clear to point out that the registered email address of the deceased member’s account must be included. “Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request,” states the website.

“The interactions of a person through social media are a facet of everyday life and supply tangible evidence about what they valued and who they chose to interact with while alive,” Daniel Forrester, author of “Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization” told EyesOnNews. “Digital afterlife is inevitable. It allows survivors a way to celebrate and remember.”


Bill Lewisof Fort Lauderdale – Radio talk show host, Starbucks connoisseur, social media whiz, political consultant, identity theft expert, columnist, philanthropist and his kids Dad. 

As a nationally recognized credit repair and ID theft expert, Bill Lewis is principal of William E. Lewis Jr. & Associates,a solutions based professional consulting firm specializing in the discriminating individual, business or governmental entity. 

Yahoo blasts new digital death laws, but its privacy argument is self-serving

Yahoo blasts new digital death laws, but its privacy argument is self-serving

Yahoo is claiming that it wants to stand up for the rights of dead users, and resist new state laws that make it easier for heirs to access online accounts. Its privacy argument appears disingenuous.

States are passing laws to make it easier to obtain digital data from Facebook, Yahoo and other password-protected accounts when someone dies. Tech companies, however, have been slow to support such laws and are now actively pushing back against them.

This week, Yahoo claimed that a model law fails to protect sensitive data like photos and messages, and that allowing heirs to access accounts fails to respect the wishes of dead users.

In a blog post, senior lawyer Bill Ashworth wrote:

In order to protect our users’ privacy, we honor the initial agreement that a user made with us […] We believe that account holders and individuals—not legislators—should determine what happens to a person’s digital archives at the time of their death. When it comes to a person’s digital archive, our team will continue to argue in favor of a user’s right to privacy.

The object of Yahoo’s criticism is a draft digital death law from the Uniform Law Commission. States can use the draft as a template to add rules to their inheritance laws in order to make it easier for executors to access the online accounts where important contracts or other information may be located. Delaware has already passed such a law, and a dozen states are expected to follow suit in the coming year.

So what is Yahoo upset about? Is it fair for the company to claim, as it does in the blog post, that “the ULC model sets the privacy default at zero?” Hardly.

As I reported earlier, the law wasn’t slapped together by a group of numbskull bureaucrats. It’s the careful work of a national group of lawyers and addresses the real problem that, these days, a range of assets and artifacts — from photos to bank information to bitcoins — lie on the other side of a password-protected gate controlled by tech companies. And the law, as written, doesn’t allow just anyone to demand that Facebook or Yahoo (or whoever) hand over a deceased user’s account. Instead, it involves a verification process that is intended to allow authorized agents to gain access for a limited period of time.

The real reason that Yahoo is upset about the law is probably not privacy. Instead, the company may dislike the fact that the law forces tech companies to act as intermediaries between dead users and their family members. Such responsibility is not just awkward, but will also entail the companies to expend resources dealing with the requests — instead of just relying on user agreements to say “no,” which is what they do now.

In the blog post, Yahoo says it prefers that its users determine what happens to their archives after they die. And indeed, Google has already created an “inactive account manager” tool to help them do just that.

But while such self-serve tools are a good idea, few people are now using them. More importantly, tech companies like Yahoo have little reason to claim that state laws should treat digital goods any differently than the physical photo albums and bankers boxes that people have always left behind.

How to Protect your Digital Assets (Part 3)

How to Protect your Digital Assets (Part 3)

Continuing from our Blog series on Digital Assets, here are a couple ways you can protect you and your family:

Identify your digital assets
You can break them down into broad categories (email, domain, storage, finances, banking, stocks, bonds, securities, taxes, retirement, insurance, credit cards, debts, utilities, businesses, social, media, loyalty and other) and for each asset identify the username, password, account number and any other identifying information necessary to access the asset.

There are many sites to store this information or you can store it to a tangible media source (such as a DVD, portable hard drive or flash drive) or you can simply write it down with traditional pen and paper and keep the information with your important documents (e.g. estate plan, deeds, etc.) Just remember to update the list if you add an asset or change a password. Reconcile yourself to the fact that there will be multiple passwords: a password to start the device, a password to access the operating system, a password to open a document, a password to access a website…passwords galore.

Designate a “digital fiduciary”to handle the asset upon your incapacity or death. Typically, the digital fiduciary would be the same person that is the trustee of your trust or executor of your will or agent under a power of attorney.

The digital fiduciary would be responsible for the following tasks:

  1. Identify the digital assets (hopefully the list of digital assets you prepared is complete and accessible)
  2. Copy or Delete information (Preserve important information and Preserve the decedent’s reputation)
  3. Provide information (Share the information with the estate representative, such as banking information that can only be accessed on-line)
  4. Distribute the asset to the intended recipient

For additional information and/or questions about digital assets, please contact our Estate Planning Attorney in Los Angeles.