On Wednesday, an Oakland County probate court in Michigan ordered Yahoo to give the contents of the e-mail account to the father of Justin Ellsworth, 20, who was killed in November by a roadside bomb in Fallujah.
Yahoo complied with the mandate Thursday, despite the company's policy of not giving e-mail passwords to anyone other than the account holder.
"We are pleased the court resolved this matter," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako.
The case highlights uncertainty about the privacy of people's digital life in the event of their death, and about the responsibilities Internet service providers have toward family members.
Experts say there has yet to be a definitive court ruling on the status of e-mail as to whether it is an extension of the deceased's estate at the time of his or her passing. But, they say, it would stand to reason that e-mail account information and the data within the account would be treated equally to other possessions.
"If an ISP's terms of service run contrary to what would seem to be a reasonable holding by a probate court, then you would need to have a hearing to find which position would win out--whether the public interest is better served by releasing personal data or by upholding a privacy holding in an ISP's terms of service," said Ray Everett-Church, principal for privacy consultancy PrivacyClue.
Some e-mail providers, such as America Online, allow next-of-kin to access e-mail accounts of the deceased by submitting documents proving the relationship and by faxing a copy of the death certificate. AOL does not require loved ones to go through the courts.
Yahoo's terms of service prohibit the company from disclosing private e-mail communications. Yahoo will turn over an account to family members only after they go through the courts to verify their identity and relationship to the deceased.
Despite its compliance in the case, Yahoo said it will not reverse its company policy, choosing instead to honor the privacy of account holders.
Yahoo delivered to Ellsworth's father, John Ellsworth, a CD of his e-mail documents, according to a spokeswoman. The company also plans to provide him with printouts of the communications early next week.
John Ellsworth could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in an interview with Detroit radio station WJR, he credited Yahoo for acting quickly and responsibly once the legal issues were settled, including helping him decrypt the information on the CD.
"I do appreciate Yahoo's take on this, and I'm glad we were able to come to an agreement," he said.