E-mail is relatively new and few people have considered how e-mail may play
into an estate. The more obvious aspect of this is that the information you find in
the decedent's e-mail may help locate assets, deal with pending business matters,
or identify persons who should be notified of the decedent's death.
Less obvious is the fact that the e-mail itself is intellectual property. Mostly this
will not matter a whole lot, but depending on the decedent's lifetime activities it
could lead to some interesting litigation.
So far the litigation regarding decedents' e-mail revolve around gaining
access to the accounts. So far the decisions have favored the decedents' families
despite the fact that the intellectual property technically belongs to the internet
The ease of gaining access to the e-mail account depends greatly on the
decedent's set up. Access may be as easy as firing up the decedent's computer
and clicking the e-mail client. If the e-mail account is exclusively web-based, like a
Hotmail account, locating the account and accessing it may be more difficult and
If access is more involved the place to start may be the internet service
access to the account, ranging from allowing access with a power of attorney and
a death certificate to prohibition altogether based on a policy prohibiting transfer.
A decedent may not want his or her survivors to access his or her e-mail
account and may have actually dealt with that issue in his or her will.