Apple (sometimes) deletes inactive accounts
“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)
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
Apple stipulates that the court order specify the following details before they can proceed further:
- 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.
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.
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)?
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.
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