How to prepare your digital assets in case of death

Someone’s passing could leave their data and devices locked up forever. But there are some preparations and techniques you could try.

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Mac 911 has received a sadly unsurprising number of emails this year from people whose loved ones have passed away, and who are left with computers, mobile devices, and cloud accounts that contain memories, legal documents, and much more.

I have written previously about various aspects of survivorship for Apple products and its ecosystem, but it’s worth extending and collecting that in one place, given the number of questions many of you have.

Make a plan before it’s too late

Most of us feel macabre talking about death, but dealing with the fussy details ahead of time can solve endless problems later. It’s especially true with digital resources, as giant technology firms, including Apple, may not be responsive to your queries when someone’s gone.

Try to sort out with living relatives, partners, and the like a way for them to store their passwords so that you can have access if they die or are incapacitated. If you have enough trust in another person, you can exchange passwords in a secure way. My wife and I use 1Password, and each have an entry shared with the other person with critical information in case of emergency or death.

You could also hire a lawyer, or your loved one, business partner, or other person you have a connection to could. A lawyer can draft a simple document that would let them hold passwords in escrow for another party, and release them only under particular circumstances. (It’s critical to share that with other people so they know how to reach this lawyer or law firm.)

You can go one step further, too, and encrypt the information provided to the lawyer, providing the password only to authorized parties. That prevents your data being accessible if a firm had an untrustworthy employee or your files were stolen.

(An easy way to encrypt is to make an encrypted disk image on which you put files. Use Disk Utility: File > New Image > Blank Image, set a name and disk size, choose 256-bit from the Encryption pop-up menu, enter and record a password. Only Macs can decrypt and mount such a disk image.)

A trusted party could fulfill that intermediary role instead of a lawyer, too, if there’s someone who could be relied upon to release the encrypted information under the same restrictions.

Manage hardware

In happier times, in 2018, I explained how to handle inheriting a Mac, including what you can do ahead of time to prepare, if you have that ability: “What you need to do when you inherit a Mac.”

Macs have advantages in recovery, because it’s possible to store password hints displayed when you enter an account’s secret incorrectly, and to record a Recovery Key for FileVault or escrow it in iCloud. An additional administrator account can be set up ahead of time, giving another party access if they inherit the machine or need access to it. (Things are trickier on Macs with a T2 Security Chip, which requires more advance planning.)

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It’s much harder to make advance arrangements for an iPhone, iPad, Watch, or iPod touch, because the passcode or password to unlock these devices is never stored elsewhere and there’s no way to recover a lost or forgotten one. Someone has to provide you with that information, or a device’s data could be lost forever.

You can restore device data from a backup without knowing the passcode of the original device in many circumstances, which I wrote about recently in “How to recover iPhone and iPad data from a backup without the device’s passcode.”

If you want to wipe the device and Find My was enabled, you will need its iCloud password to disable Activation Lock, which may be impossible with a deceased owner. See “Need to disable Activation Lock on an iPhone or iPad? Here are the 3 Apple-connected options to do so.”

Retain account access

Apple doesn’t allow “survivorship” on its accounts. When someone dies, an estate’s executor or family has no rights to access to those accounts. That’s hard to swallow. Read “Can I keep my partner’s Apple purchases and account after they die?

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Ian.

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