Apple used to have the idea that when we die, our Apple ID and iCloud data should go with us. Their terms and conditions explicitly stated that upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all content in your account deleted. Perhaps due to the large number of people dying before their natural course during the pandemic, Apple moderated this stance with the Digital Legacy feature.
First announced at the 2021 Worldwide Developers Conference, the feature appeared in hints in October 2021, but only became available a few weeks ago with the release of iOS 15.2 and iPadOS 15.2 , then later from macOS 12.1. Digital Legacy lets you select up to five people, called your Legacy Contacts, who can access the data you sync with iCloud.com after you pass. This process also disables Activation Lock on linked devices, making them erasable and reusable.
(Note: Apple calls the feature in its operating systems Legacy Contact; it labels the process, associated website, and service Digital Legacy.)
The people you choose will need to retain certain information provided by Legacy Contact to prove that you gave them permission while you were alive. They must also obtain a death certificate which they can provide to Apple to access your information.
Providing access can be something you want for yourself to allow your loved ones, family, or others to have access to your contacts, photos, and other types of data. Or, you may be able to help relatives and friends set this up so they have a digital afterlife if they so choose.
The type of data available is close to but not identical to that provided by the iCloud data recovery service, introduced weeks before Digital Legacy. This last service lets you choose people to help you restore access to your data and accounts while you’re still here and now, not in the afterlife.
Digital Legacy includes almost all information synced or stored in iCloud that does not require access to a device, i.e. it does not rely on end-to-end encryption, which requires unlocking a device with password, finger or face. So you can recover photos and videos, contacts, calendar entries, emails, device backups, notes, apps, messages (stored with Messages in iCloud) and iCloud Drive files . Payment methods, media purchases, in-app purchases, and iCloud Keychain items are not accessible. Apple provides a comprehensive list.
Using Digital Legacy also disables Activation Lock on all devices registered to the Apple ID account. If someone left behind no passwords, Digital Legacy makes it possible to securely erase those devices and then reuse them. They can be sold, traded or given away. But their secrets locked by the device remain preserved.
The feature is easy to activate. When you add contacts, the system generates a unique access key for them. If they have iOS/iPadOS 15.2 or macOS 12.1 installed, this key is added to their Apple ID account and they can start the recovery process later directly from their device.
Otherwise, you or they will need to keep track of it in electronic or paper form. Apple notes that it could be included in estate planning documents released after death.
On iOS/iPadOS 15.2 or later, start with:
- Go to Settings Account name Password Security Legacy contact.
- Faucet Add a legacy contact.
- Read the disclosures, then press Add a legacy contact.
- Apple authenticates you via Touch ID or Face ID or requires an additional step.
On macOS 12.1 or later, start with:
- Open the Apple ID preferences pane and click Password Security in the list on the left.
- Click on Manage to the right of Legacy Contact.
- Read the information and click Add a legacy contact.
- Apple authenticates you via Touch ID or requires an additional step.
On the Add Legacy Contact screen, you can select members in a Family Sharing group if you are one. You can also tap or click Choose someone elsetap or click Followingthen start typing to match people from your contacts.
When you tap or click Continue on an additional disclosure screen, that person is immediately added as a contact. But you have to take the next step to notify them and you can’t go back. You’ll be prompted to send them a message if their contact information is enabled for iMessage.
You can message someone with the responsibility (and key) assigned to them or print a copy.
Either way, you’ll also have the option to print a copy of the key, which includes information about Legacy Contact, some details about you, and has both the text and the scannable QR code format of the key. iOS and iPadOS require you to print the document; you can’t save it as a PDF unless you’re on a Mac, where it’s a simple option in the Print dialog. (I had to force close Settings on my iPhone to get out of this no-choice impasse.)
Retrieve the access key after registration
You can retrieve contacts’ access keys after inviting them for the first time:
- In iOS/iPadOS, return to Settings Account name Password Security Legacy contact. Tap an existing old contact.
- On macOS, return to the iCloud preferences pane, click Password SecurityClick on Manage to the right of Legacy Contact, then click Details to the right of a contact.
You can now tap or click Show access key. After authenticating with Face ID, Touch ID, or password, you can view the passkey as text and QR code. Tap or click Print a copy to produce the output document.
You can also delete a contact on their details page by tapping or clicking Delete contact.
Request access to a person’s data after they leave
Once someone has died and you want or are instructed to access their iCloud and related information, you need a copy of their death certificate and the access key provided to you in advance or with their estate planning documents.
When Apple activates Digital Legacy for someone’s Apple ID account, here’s what happens:
- Activation Lock is disabled on any device it has been enabled on, i.e. any device that has Find My enabled.
- Apple deactivates its usual Apple ID. It can no longer be used with devices or through iCloud.com
- Apple creates a new Legacy Contact Apple ID that contains the deceased person’s data that you will use to access it.
- A three-year countdown begins. After three years, the account is no longer accessible.
You can request access through Apple’s recent operating system updates, including iOS 15.2, featured here.
You can also use an iPhone or iPad with 15.2 or later installed or a Mac with macOS 12.1 or later installed to initiate the process through the same Legacy Contact settings areas shown above. Select a contact and click Request Access. Via Apple’s Digital Legacy site, you can click Request Access and enter the access key.
This process prompts you to upload a scanned or digitized version of the death certificate, which should be flat and flexible, at least 300 dpi (3300 by 2550 for an 8.5 by 11 inch page) and in PDF, PNG, TIF, JPEG or GIF. An Apple employee reviews the file manually and you receive an email for more information or when account access is approved.
Apple then creates a new legacy Apple ID account name and asks you to create a password for it. Two-factor authentication is required. Once created, you can sign in through iCloud.com and access the person’s data as if you were using iCloud.com with a normal account. You can also use the account to restore iCloud backups to an iOS or iPadOS device.
Any legacy contact can start this process if they have the death certificate. Apple warns that whoever is first to begin the process begins the three-year countdown. Any legacy contact can also delete all data at any time without having to digitally coordinate with other contacts.
Ask for Mac 911
We’ve compiled a list of our most frequently asked questions, along with answers and column links: read our awesome FAQ to see if your question is covered. Otherwise, we are always looking for new problems to solve! Email yours to [email protected], including screenshots if available and if you want your full name used. Not all questions will be answered, we don’t respond to emails, and we can’t provide direct troubleshooting advice.