What happens to your email account when you die depends on a few things, including:
The surest way to know what will happen to your email account is to make a plan and leave any necessary instructions to your survivors.
If you want someone to access to your account, leave instructions about 1) how to log in to the account and 2) what to do with it. True, sharing your login information will likely violate the terms of service that you agreed to when you signed up for your account, but practically speaking, it is really the only way to give someone else access to your account. This will only work as long as the email provider thinks you are alive because, most email providers suspend or delete an account when they become aware of the account holder's death.
If you don't want anyone to access your account, then you can make a plan for that too. To keep your account private, you can:
Some technology companies are creating ways to allow their account holders to determine what will happen to their accounts after death. For example, Google (gmail) offers an Inactive Account Manager that allows you to choose whether to delete the account or pass (some) account information on to your survivors after a period of inactivity. Here is what Google says about this:
If your email provider offers a tool like this, it is a good way to choose for yourself what will happen to your account after you die. If your email provider does not provide a tool like this, it may soon. As the law moves toward allowing executors more authority over digital assets, tech companies will likely come up with more ways to let account holders control the fate of their accounts.
If you don't make a plan for your email account and no one tries to access it, your account will likely succumb to the email provider's inactivity policy. Usually, this means that after several months without a login, your account will be suspended or deleted. If you do not want anyone to have access to your email account, and if you expect that no one will try to access your account, this "do nothing" approach could work well.
However, if you want anyone to have access, or if you want to keep your account private and you think someone might try to access it, then doing nothing will likely have an undesirable outcome because it's unlikely – but possible – for your executor to get access after your death.
If you have not provided explicit instructions, your executor will have a slim chance getting into your account. Most email providers will not grant access to the accounts of deceased people unless they are legally obligated to do so. Until recently, those legal obligations have been few and far between. However, the law is changing in favor of granting authority to executors. So, an executor's ability to get access to an account will vary by state.
Most states do not have any laws that grant executors access to a deceased person's email account. In those states, without a law, there is essentially no way for our executor to get into your account unless you leave them instructions or they manage to break in.
However, a few states have passed laws that grant executors authority to access digital accounts, and many more are considering such laws. Among lawmakers, there is a growing understanding that executors need access to digital assets to wrap up a dead person's estate. And in fact, many people want their email, social media, subscription, online storage, and other digital assets to be passed onto or managed by survivors. The Uniform Law Commission drafted a law that gives executors very broad authority over digital assets (UFADAA). So far only one state – Delaware – has adopted it, but many states are taking a look at it. In contrast, tech companies and organizations concerned with privacy have offered up another law that puts strong limits on an executor's ability to access a deceased person's accounts. These two laws represent competing ideologies – protection of a dead person's privacy vs. an executor's need for access. It's not currently clear how this will play out, but change is underway.
Check out your state's law on Nolo's Digital Assets page.
The only way to know what will happen to your email account is to make a plan.
Without a plan, after your death your email account will probably exist untouched until the email provider deletes it. Depending on your state, your executor may have a slim chance to gain authority to access your account, but it will be a struggle.
If you really want to know what will happen to your email account after you die, either plan for it to be deleted, or tell your loved ones how to log into it and what to do with it when they get in.