Dealing with your loved one’s email

6 min read

What to expect from different email providers

  • Google can’t guarantee access to your loved one’s Gmail account, but they have a process you can follow and they will decide.

  • Yahoo won’t grant access to your loved one’s email at all, but can close the account upon request once they have received all required documents.

  • Microsoft will automatically freeze accounts after a year of inactivity and close them after two, but they will not provide any content without a court order.

Nowadays, when a loved one passes away, there’s a good chance they’ve left behind at least one active email account. While any work email will likely be taken care of by their employer, you or someone in your family may need to access their personal email.

Many of us keep important information in our email, especially contacts that you may need to access in order to settle their affairs correctly. There may be important documents and records that you need to save, or even photos that you may want to preserve. Or you may simply want to make sure the account is closed down.

It can be frustrating to be unable to access this part of your loved one’s life, which can often feel really painful when you’re already missing them so much. Try to remember that their email was just a small part of how they communicated, and a tiny fraction of who they were as a whole person. Most everything you need to find there will also be found elsewhere with a bit of digging, whether in hard copy or by contacting the various organizations the person was in contact with. 

If you do gain access, it is important to keep in mind that you may come across things in the email account that surprise you. Nobody shows anyone in their life, even those closest to them, the entirety of who they are, and that’s completely normal and to be expected. Should you come across sensitive information or a surprising note, don’t dwell on or overthink it. Out of context, any information can be deceiving, and you have enough on your plate right now. Focus on yourself and what you need to do, and do your best to keep everything in perspective. 

Gaining access to your loved one’s email

If you know or have a way of finding out your loved one’s email password, that will, of course, be the easiest way of accessing their email. Many people will have written the password down somewhere near their computer or their desk. If you have access to their computer, it is likely that their password is saved on the machine. A technologically savvy friend or a local computer service may be able to help you with this. Some people also choose to leave the password in their final wishes letter or with their lawyer, so be sure to check with them.

Many email services also have a password recovery feature, which you may be able to use if you can use a recovery method that they set up, such as if you can read a text message sent to their phone, or if you know the answers to certain security questions. If you follow the protocols and are accepted, you will be able to set your own new password.

If you cannot find or reset your loved one’s password, things become a little more complex. No matter which email service your loved one used, it will have a privacy policy that makes procuring their password not as easy as one might hope. When you set up a digital account like email, you agree to Terms of Service, including a whole list of privacy rules that most of us never actually read. But those terms generally state that if someone other than the person setting up the email wants to get into it, even after the account holder has passed away, they’re going to have to jump through some hoops.

Email services’ policies for access

Gmail, Google’s email provider, has terms of service that are not encouraging when it comes to accessing the email of a loved one who has passed away. They acknowledge that family members may need to access a loved one’s account, but state simply that “in rare cases we may be able to provide the contents of the Gmail account to an authorized representative of the deceased person.” 

In other words, Google won’t guarantee that you or anyone else close to your loved one will be able to access the email, but they don’t dissuade you from trying. They consider the trust between their company and the owner of the email, even after they have passed away, to be of primary importance. Google promised them privacy, and they will only consider violating this privacy on a case-by-case basis.

The executor of the estate or a close relative of the person must send the following, via fax or snail mail to Gmail User Support, Decedents’ Accounts:

  • Your full name

  • Your mailing address

  • Your email address

  • A photocopy of a government-issued ID—a driver’s license or passport

  • The Gmail address of the person has passed away

  • The death certificate 

  • A copy of an email you received from the person’s Gmail address. The copy should include the entire email header, from “Delivered-To:” through “Content-Type” (you can access this in Gmail by clicking “Show original”), as well as the entire email message. 

After all this information is received and reviewed, you’ll be contacted about whether you can move onto the second stage of the process, in which you will be asked to provide further information, potentially including a court order. It can take months before the entire process is complete. If Google decides to grant access, it will not give you the password but will provide some or all of the contents of the emails.

Dealing with your loved one’s email accounts can be a source of added stress at an already stressful time.

Yahoo, on the other hand, doesn’t give you the option to access your loved one’s email at all. They will close the account at your request, if you provide the Yahoo email address you wish to close, a document proving you have the right to make this request, and the death certificate. All of this must be sent to Yahoo via snail mail, and you’ll be contacted when the account is closed. 

If your loved one had an Outlook, Hotmail, or other Microsoft email address, Microsoft will simply freeze the account and delete the emails and other info after a year of inactivity, fully closing the account after two years. If you need access to information in the account and do not have the password, Microsoft will only consider sending you account content if you get a court order.

Dealing with your loved one’s email accounts can be a source of added stress at an already stressful time. Take the process at your own pace, ask for help when you can, and remember that there is almost always another route for finding any information you might need.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.