What happens to your iPhone and iCloud account after you die? - PhoneArena

What happens to your iPhone and iCloud account after you die?

We may earn a commission if you make a purchase from the links on this page.
What happens to your iPhone/iCloud account when you die?
Have you ever stopped for a moment to ask yourself this question: what in the world would become of your iPhone should you, for any unfortunate reason, happen to be met with an untimely end? 

If you've never shared your passcode, would your family be able to access your phone? What about your iCloud account, and the last precious (and perhaps embarrassing) memories lurking there? We all know Apple has made it nearly impossible to gain access to a locked phone unless you're the owner, so it's a legitimate concern.

It's also something that has often crossed my mind, as I'd definitely want to know if my loved ones would be able to access my device and personal information if something happened to me. The same goes if something similar were to befall a family member. 

That's why I decided to dive in and do some in-depth research to learn exactly what Apple's policies are when it comes to such a scenario, as sobering as it is to think about.


Apple (sometimes) deletes inactive accounts

It is important to note that in Apple's iCloud terms and conditions, it is disclosed that Apple may take its own initiative to delete an iCloud account if it has been inactive for a year or more:

"A general discontinuance" seems to insinuate that it is essentially at Apple's discretion to determine whether or not an account has fallen into disuse, and will thus be deleted. Either way, the deletion process always comes with a 30-day warning, so it shouldn't catch anyone out of the blue.

What happens to your iCloud after death

As you know, the iCloud account is where essentially all of the information from an iPhone is stored, including backups, photos, videos, iMessages and texts, Apple services purchase history (including music and movies)

When you first think about it, it immediately makes sense to assume that a deceased person's Apple ID and accompanying iCloud account would be handed over to the closest family member(s), to recover the last precious memories that may lie there—or even, in certain cases, critical information that may provide clues as to the person's death.

If, like me, you thought there would be an automatic transfer process of all this personal info after the owner's death, you would be sorely mistaken. As it turns out, Apple has a particular clause in the iCloud legal terms of service page, which specifically addresses this.

This essentially means that no surviving member of the family simply gets to "inherit" access to the deceased's account. The best you can hope for (going by this clause) is complete account deletion, to lighten the load on Apple's cloud servers. But there is no standardized process for this—or at least not one that is publicized. You'd have to contact Apple services, who will ask for a copy of the death certificate to be presented. Then they will simply wipe the account from existence.

However, the "unless otherwise required by law" leads us to think that there may be a way to get access to the account, or an account transferal, through an attorney or legal representative appointed by law to manage the affairs of the deceased. (Either that or a formal death investigation requiring the iCloud account as evidence.)

There is a (legal) way—with lots of paperwork

Two years ago, Apple published a more detailed support note which seems to clarify the "unless otherwise required by law" in more detail. There, the company says it could be possible to access the account of someone who's passed on if the remaining family members are able to obtain a court order

Apple stipulates that the court order specify the following details before they can proceed further:

  1. The name and Apple ID of the deceased person.

  2. The name of the next of kin who is requesting access to the decedent’s account.

  3. That the decedent was the user of all accounts associated with the Apple ID.

  4. That the requestor is the decedent’s legal personal representative, agent, or heir, whose authorization constitutes "lawful consent.”

  5. 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.

Are there any loopholes? What if you don't have a court order?

We suspect that if there is another, easier option, Apple is simply not telling us. What if, for any reason, the loved one dealing with this is unable to obtain a court order? Regularly it happens that the relation who was closest to the deceased is not a legal representative or heir and may be unable to provide that specific documentation. 

This could well be to avoid exploitation of the system, as Apple prides itself on its account security—but it can also make it extremely hard on the surviving loved ones. 

We reached out to Apple seeking further information, and we will update this if they ever get back to us.

Apple has, however, already published what may be some useful advice to avoid the potential hassle of desperately trying to access an Apple account after the event of death.

Of course, wills aren't something most non-retired people are thinking of writing up, and it's primarily middle-aged and younger groups that tend to have all of their photos and memories stored up in their phones. That's why it can be a difficult thing to foresee and deal with. And, even if there is an existing will granting you access to the deceased's photos, you'd still have to get a court order to get Apple to co-operate.

Accessing the iCloud account through e-mail

If you have access to the deceased person's e-mail account (the one they used to set up their iCloud), you might be able to skip all the legal hassle and gain access to the iCloud in a matter of minutes. 

If they used a Windows PC or laptop (or an older Mac before the T2 chip came in), there are simple ways to get past the Windows password and enter the system—where they were most likely already logged into their e-mail. 

By using the "Forgot Password" function when signing in to iCloud, the account's password can be very easily changed by clicking on a "Reset Password" link that will be sent to the account's associated e-mail. Once you change the password, you can access the iCloud through the web or set it up on any other iPhone.

It probably goes without saying that obtaining access to the iCloud account that way goes against Apples terms of use, and may result in account suspension or termination if Apple somehow catches wind of it (although if done properly, it shouldn't be a problem).

Apple may forcibly erase the account

Imagine you weren't able to get into the account that way, and so you went through the entire official process of obtaining the proper court order by the right person, and convincing Apple to work with you (according to some Apple users, it's very difficult to even find Apple "Experts" familiar with the process). 

Imagine you've done all that—a process that can take many tedious months—only to be told by Apple that they are going to forcibly delete the deceased's account (albeit with the 30-day notice)? 

This is what happened to Jeff Fischer last year, when he ended up in the same position and trying to transfer a $100 credit from the diseased's account. Here is his experience:

Deducing from Fischer's experience, if you go about it the official way, you may even end up with the deceased person's account deleted—hopefully after you've had a chance to transfer over the important data. It's good to have that in mind when deciding what to do.

According to an article by Adam Engst, when another household unexpectedly lost a family member who was the only admin of a Family Sharing account, all the Apple reps they spoke with had absolutely no knowledge of any protocol in this scenario. They told the family that they were on their own, that there was nothing they could do—with no mention of Apple's court order policy ("How to request access to a deceased family member's Apple accounts").

If that ever befalls you and you receive similar treatment from Apple, you would do well to be armed with knowledge of that policy as well as the required court order. Then Apple would have no choice but to find someone to co-operate with you (who may also ended up deleting the account, but I guess you can't always have your cake and eat it, too).

But what what happens to the iPhone?

If nobody but the deceased person ever had access to the iPhone's passcode, entering the device with the original account is unfortunately a lost cause. Even the FBI has never been able to pry any special treatment out of Apple when it came to locked passcodes: The company simply never makes exceptions.

Even if you've received official access to the deceased's iCloud account, but you don't have the phone's passcode, you'd have to either set up the iCloud on a separate phone, or factory reset the original phone completely. However, the second options means that any information that was not backed up to the iCloud will be deleted.

Apple introduces Digital Legacy with iOS 15

At the WWDC event on June 7, 2021, Apple announced the implementation of a new way for a deceased iCloud account holder to pass on their information to loved ones. This will arrive along with iOS 15 by the end of the year, and it allows you to choose "Legacy Contacts" who can obtain access to your iCloud in the event of your passing. 

When the time comes, these Legacy Contacts—assumedly (a) person(s) you deeply trust—will be able to request access to the account. They will only need to provide a copy of your death certificate, and they'll be in. (Paid purchases can not be transferred to someone else, however.)
Apple's Digital Legacy feature is somewhat reminiscent of Google's long-existing Inactive Account Manager, which has a very similar function for posthumous account access transferal.

We truly hope none of you will ever be exposed to any of the scenarios mentioned in this article, be that for you or for a loved one. However, it's always good to future-proof your account by setting up Apple's Digital Legacy (unless you want to it die with you, that is), and be aware of what happens to your account and device posthumously.

Keep safe and healthy!


Best Deals on the iPhone 11 Right Now

Loading Comments...
FCC OKs Cingular\'s purchase of AT&T Wireless