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In general, if an account holder suddenly stops logging into that account, the account will go through a series of steps and eventually be closed down.

Please tell me what happens to email boxes when their holder ceases living or becomes disabled?

In this excerpt from Answercast #64, I look at the steps that most email services go through when an email account is abandoned.

How long do emails last?

This is actually an important thing that a lot of people don't think about.

The answer, as it turns out, depends entirely on what email service you're talking about - what email service you're using.

By that, I mean the rules that your ISP might use (if that's where you're getting your email) will be different than the rules that say Gmail uses or Hotmail uses - and those may be different than the rules that Yahoo Mail uses.

In other words, there is no single answer. You really need to understand (if this is a specific you are looking at)... you need to understand what the rules are for the provider you're using.

Email account rules

Now, in general, it's actually fairly simple: the account stays active for "a while."

A "while" can be anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. By active, I mean nothing changes: it continues to accumulate email. If the account holder doesn't login to it, that's all it does; it just sits there and accumulates email.

Some email services have what they call "quotas" - which means you're only allowed to accumulate a certain amount of email. If the provider has such a quota and if this account continues to receive so much email that it exceeds that quota, then email sent to that account will typically start getting bounced. It will start getting rejected.

People sending email to that account may usually get a notice that says "quota exceeded."

Abandoned accounts

Now, it is also the case that in most email services, after a certain period of time where you have not logged into the account, you haven't downloaded email from the account, the service will say, "Oh, you've abandoned this account."

Typically, what then happens is a two-stage process. The first thing that happens is that the email and contacts and everything are removed from that account - so that the account is effectively empty. It is still there - and in fact, if you were to come back and login to that account, you would then reactivate the account: except that nothing would be in it.

This is important for people who want to reclaim an email address after they've abandoned for some period of time. They won't be able to get the email if this has happened, but they'll at least be able to regain control of the email address and continue using it from that point forward.

If they continue not to login to that email account address, then eventually the service will say, "Nope, you've really abandoned this. I'm going to return this email address into the pool of available email addresses."

Now, someone new can come along and create a brand new account that now uses what used to be your email address because you stopped using it.

How much time?

It's important to note once again here that all of the different times I'm talking about: the amount of time that it may take to hit a quota (if there even is a quota); the amount of time that it may take to cause your account to be emptied (because it's considered abandoned); and the amount of time it may take for that account to be completely shut down (and the email address returned to the pool of available email addresses); that's all of the stuff that varies from one ISP, from one email provider to another.

That's the stuff I can't give you specifics on because that's the stuff that is going to be different depending on exactly who it is you're talking about.

But in general, those are things to realize will happen if an account holder suddenly stops logging into that account. Email will accumulate. A quota, if any, will be exceeded. Email may then start bouncing. Eventually, email may be removed from the account. And then finally, the account will be completely and formally closed and the email address returned to the available pool of free email addresses.

Article C5958 - October 25, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
October 29, 2012 7:09 AM

And don't forget if the email account comes from the ISP, the email account may very well be wiped out if the account holder does not renew or continue to pay for their internet account (which likely will happen after the holder passes away).

How much grace do they give you to pay a bill that hasn't been paid? Well, that's going to vary from ISP to ISP.

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