Planning Your Digital Afterlife Just Got Easier

Give your family access to your information when you're gone

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s new Digital Legacy program lets you choose who can access your data after you die.
  • The program is part of a growing movement to ensure that digital assets can be passed along to survivors. 
  • Some apps can help users make plans for their online accounts after death.
A couple looking at a computer in the funeral home.

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A growing movement is working to ensure that digital assets can be passed along to survivors after death.  

Apple's new Digital Legacy program coming in iOS 15.2 allows you to choose up to five people as Legacy Contacts. After you die, the survivors you name can access your data and personal information stored in iCloud. 

"Apple is acknowledging here that many of our most valued assets are now digital," Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of a book on digital survivorship called "The End of Ownership," told Lifewire in an email interview. "Providing users with tools to transfer those digital assets is responding to growing consumer demand for recognition of their ownership and control over their digital lives."

Digital Afterlife

Apple's new program is intended to make passing along your digital assets much simpler. Previously, you had to provide a court order confirming a right to inheritance and then go through a convoluted process to gain access. But with iOS 15.2, all you need is proof of death and an access key. 

Perzanowski said that there are practical and legal reasons for digital survivorship systems like the one Apple has implemented. Companies that maintain password-protected accounts have an obligation to maintain the privacy of user data. 

"So automatically transferring information to relatives can be problematic," he added. "These systems give the user greater control over who can see their photos and read their messages after their death."

Survivorship is a part of a larger discussion about data rights, the right to be forgotten, and who owns information online, Rachel Vrabec, the CEO of Kanary, a personal data privacy company, told Lifewire.

"Most privacy and personal data rights movements support co-ownership, survivorship rules, and rights to be forgotten after passing away," she added. 

"These systems give the user greater control over who can see their photos and read their messages after their death."

Passing it On

Apple isn't the only tech company working to ensure digital legacies are passed on after death. For example, in 2015, Facebook (now called Meta) announced a 'legacy contact' for passing on accounts.

"This was after a lot of outrage and pushback by people unable to control their loved one's accounts after they passed away," Vrabec said. "A scenario where a mom gets locked out of her daughter's account is part of a Black Mirror episode, entitled "Smithereens."

When family members notify Meta of a relatives' death,  the nominated legacy contact can take control of the deceased person's account. The connection can then write a pinned post for the users' profile, decide who can see and who can post tributes, change who can see posts that the user is tagged in, update the profile picture and cover photo and request the removal of the account.

Meta also added tools to help those grieving the loss of a loved one and protect users from upsetting exposure to notifications and updates. The company added a 'Tributes' option for the profiles of deceased users, which a legacy contact can implement.

A senior adult using a laptop computer at home.

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"The new tributes section provides a separate tab on memorialized profiles where friends and family can share posts—all while preserving the original timeline of their loved one," the company wrote in a news release. "This lets people see the types of posts that are most helpful to them as they grieve and remember their loved ones."

Some apps can help users make plans for their online accounts after death. For example, the MyWishes app allows you to document all of your accounts and print out an exhaustive list in a 'Social Media Will' document.

Experts say that despite the recent progress, there's a long way to go before digital legacies match the capabilities of a real-world will. Perzanowski pointed out that while the Apple program gives survivors rights to unlock their phone and personal information, it doesn't include other digital assets like purchased music, movies, books, and games.

"True digital ownership would allow users to transfer their digital libraries to their loved ones the same way they can the contents of their bookshelves," he added. 

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