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

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USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about digital etiquette.

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.

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