WSJ Article on Access to Online Accounts After a Business Owner Dies

There is an article by Molly Williams in today’s Wall Street Journal titled “If a Business Owner Dies, Who Can Access the Web?” The article points out that some small businesses have only one person who knows the passwords to the important online accounts for the business, and that could disastrous for the business if that person becomes incapacitated or dies without writing down the passwords so that others can access the accounts. Ensuring access to the business’s important online accounts is an important part of business continuity planning—a business may need to handle online customer orders, online purchases from suppliers, online payroll software, online bill paying, online marketing, e–mails, and more.

In general, I suggest that a business use its own e–mail server or have the business contract with a commercial e–mail service provider—do not rely on a free e–mail service for your business e–mails. Why? Because the Terms of Service contracts at the major free e–mail service providers (Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!), say that these accounts are not transferable (or transferable only with permission). So, if the business e–mail account is registered in the individual owner’s name at one of the free e–mail services, the account probably cannot be transferred.

Also, the Yahoo! Terms of Service contract says that your account terminates when you die. The Terms of Service contracts at many other service providers are silent about what happens to your account when you die. If a business contracts directly with a commercial e–mail service provider (rather than one of the free e–mail providers), the account could continue after the owner dies.

The Microsoft and Facebook Terms of Service contracts say that only you may use your account, and you must not authorize a third party to access or use your account. This probably does not work well for business purposes, where more than one person may need to access the online account. As I have mentioned before, it could be considered a crime to access another person’s online accounts—even if you are the duly–authorized fiduciary for that person—if you “exceed authorized access” under the online account’s Terms of Service contract. The Wall Street Journal article quotes me as recommending not to access another person’s account using the person’s password—instead, the duly–authorized fiduciary for that person should contact the service provider to request the contents of the account to avoid potential charges of “exceeding authorized access.” I’ve previously mentioned the proper procedures for contacting Google, contacting Microsoft, and contacting Facebook. For a Yahoo! e–mail account, you can contact Yahoo! Customer Care to start the process, but note that, in the past, they have required a court order directing them to turn over the e–mail account contents citing privacy concerns.

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