In general, to access the account of a deceased user, you'll be required to provide proof of death as well as proof that you have the right to access the files. The more documentation you have, the easier this is to do, so plan ahead by requesting an official copy of the death certificate, any written instructions from the deceased, and proof of your relationship with them (marriage certificate, birth certificate, etc.) before you start making calls.
This is bound to be an emotional and difficult time if you're trying to handle the aftermath of a loved one's death, and the last thing you'll want to deal with is a wild goose chase for documents while you're trying to get closure, digitally speaking. On the other hand, if you expect the document-gathering process to take considerable time, it can make sense to contact providers in advance to ensure that your data is preserved properly.
Here's a sampling of what you can expect, policy-wise, from some of the major online service providers and data storage companies.
Assuming the user did not have Inactive Account Manager set up, Google requires a death certificate (translated and notarized if not in English) and proof that you have communicated with the user via their Gmail account. Google considers each request individually, after which you are further required to get a U.S. court order to transfer the account to you.
Yahoo, on the other hand, does not allow accounts to be transferred even after the death of the user at all. (Sorry, Flickr users!) The company will however shut down the account of a deceased user and delete all of the account's data upon receipt of a death certificate. However, without said notice, these accounts otherwise remain open in perpetuity.
Facebook is unique in allowing accounts to be memorialized, which prevents anyone from logging in to an account and new friends from being added. Depending on privacy settings, new comments can be added to the memorialized timeline, and private messages can still be sent to the account. Otherwise, the content on the page remains intact and visible as before. For Facebook, a URL to an online obituary or news of the deceased's passing suffices for proof. To actually take content out of a Facebook account requires a court order.
Microsoft's Next of Kin process covers only email accounts. SkyDrive and Xbox Live are not releasable upon your death. Family members must provide a death certificate (or proof of the user's incapacitation) and proof that they are indeed next of kin or executor of a will. Upon verification, accounts may be closed and deleted, or their contents shipped to you on DVD. Remember: The contents of most Microsoft email accounts are deleted after nine months of inactivity, and inactive accounts themselves are deleted after 12 months.
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