Of those two guarantees in life, death and taxes, death has dominated the headlines this year. While taxes in some parts of the world were delayed, 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 around the world so far, over 125,000 of whom were in the United States, and over 22,000 of whom perished in New York City, a mere 4-hour drive from where I live. And then there are the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and far too many other people of color.
So, without further comment on the sociological and epidemiological crises that we’re all facing, yes, death has been on my mind of late.
Then I saw a message on a private mailing list I’m on, asking for help after a member of an acquaintance’s family died unexpectedly in a boating accident. The guy who died was the sole admin of his Family Sharing account and hadn’t left shared passwords or shared security phrases, so the family members couldn’t access the administrative side of the account, including the billing info, which needed to be updated so the account wouldn’t be deactivated for lack of payment.
Troublingly, when they worked with Apple support, the reps weren’t able to help, telling them unless they could figure out the password or otherwise gain access on their own, the account would go into a suspended state. They were worried they’d lose all their family shared data if that happened. I suspect this doesn’t happen all that often or Apple’s support reps would have known that the company has a policy for such situations. Since I’d never heard of this policy before, I figured it was worth sharing more broadly in the unfortunate event that someone needs the information therein.
The Apple support document, “How to request access to a deceased family member’s Apple accounts,” lays out the process and the necessary paperwork. The key is a court order that specifies:
- The name and Apple ID of the deceased person
- The name of the next of kin who is requesting access to the decedent’s account
- That the decedent was the user of all accounts associated with the Apple ID
- That the requestor is the decedent’s legal personal representative, agent, or heir, whose authorization constitutes “lawful consent”
- That Apple is ordered by the court to assist in the provision of access to the decedent’s information from the deceased person’s accounts
I suspect that acquiring such a court order would be time-consuming and most easily done in conjunction with a lawyer. Once you have it, contact Apple support and be clear about what you need, the fact that you have a court order, and that you’re working in accordance with this support note.
In the particular example I gave above, the family is still waiting for their state to fulfill their request for a court order two weeks after it was filed, in part because it took some time to get the official death certificate. Luckily though, they discovered that they could work around the problem by having each member of the family remove themselves from the family plan on their own devices. After that, they were able to create a new family plan and add everyone back to it.
Two other notes. First, just as when the FBI requests help with getting into a criminal’s locked iPhone, Apple is very clear about how it cannot break passcode encryption, saying:
Please note that devices locked with a passcode are protected by passcode encryption, and unless the next of kin knows the device passcode, Apple will not be able to remove the passcode lock on the device without erasing it.
So you might be able to get Apple to help sufficiently to erase a deceased family member’s devices, but there’s no way to access the information on that device. It’s conceivable that you could restore an iCloud backup to a new or erased device once you have access to the deceased person’s Apple ID, but I don’t know for sure if that’s possible.
Second, while boating accidents are a particularly unexpected way to go (they account for only 0.02% of deaths in the US), it’s only sensible to plan for a similar eventuality. Several years ago, Joe Kissell wrote a tremendously helpful book on the topic, Take Control of Your Digital Legacy, and introduced it in TidBITS with “Aunt Agatha Ponders Her Digital Legacy” (30 January 2017). In the book, Joe walks readers through the thinking necessary to create a digital inventory of your online accounts, purchased media, software, personal data, and cryptocurrency. If you make such a digital inventory, you can rest easy knowing that your family won’t have extra work in the event that you die without warning.