Your Social Media Legacy: Pre-Planning on Apple
In June 2021, Apple announced their new Digital Legacy Program, an announcement of such significance it made it into the World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) Keynote and State of the Nation address. The first release of this program includes a new Legacy Contact feature:
This new feature (or “pre-planning” option as referred to by those in the estate industry), allows Apple account holders (users) to give someone access to the data stored on their Apple devices and iCloud account after they pass away. But how does it work, exactly, and what benefit will the Apple legacy contact program really be? Keep reading to learn more!
The impact of Apple’s announcement
It’s no secret that Apple users are pretty hardcore about the brand… it’s all ‘i’ this and ‘i’ that. iPhone sales alone surpassed 242 million in 2021—and hardly anyone has just one Apple product. In January 2021, Apple said there were 1.65 billion active Apple devices in use.
When you think about how much of someone’s personal information is tied up into Apple products (videos, pictures, emails, etc.), it’s pretty mind-boggling it even took this long for Apple to join the digital legacy party. But better late than never!
There has been extensive media coverage on Apple’s program announcement including many thoughts pieces by digital legacy leaders in the space, such as:
Apple’s Digital Legacy Program announcement is a very welcome step. And the fact that this tech giant has finally rolled out pre-planning capabilities will hopefully see others continue to follow suit.
Let’s see how the new Apple legacy contact feature shakes out in comparison to some of the other legacy features out there:
Apple’s new legacy features at a glance
The first feature rolled out as part of Apple’s new Digital Legacy program is Legacy Contact. It was released in three operating system updates depending on the device, namely iOS 15.2 (for iPhones), iPadOS 15.2 (for iPad), and macOS 12.1 (for desktop, Macs, and MacBooks).
Assigning a Legacy Contact for your Apple account gives someone access to specific data in your accounts after your death, but not everything.
There are three key user support pages that cover the functionality:
Your Legacy Contact WILL have access to:
iCloud: Including files, messages & backup data
Safari Bookmarks and Reading List
Your Legacy Contact will NOT have access to:
Items stored in a keychain, like passwords to other applications
Want to use the Apple Legacy Contact feature? Make sure you’re using the right operating system.
As much as the user support documentation is in plain language, there are some nuances. All devices in your individual Apple ecosystem need to be on the prescribed operating system. In other words, if you have a device on your Apple Account that is not at the prescribed version, the Legacy Contact feature will not appear.
I understand why Apple might have approached this new feature in this way from a software release perspective, as well as a cybersecurity point of view in terms of operating system currency. But it will require the user to update or remove outdated devices from their Apple Account profile if they want to use this feature.
Here’s how to use the Apple Legacy Contact feature:
When you assign someone as your Legacy Contact, you can generate an access key that must be shared with them:
If the Legacy Contact also has iOS 15.2 or higher, you can share the key with them via messages, and it gets stored in their Apple ID settings.
If you choose a Legacy Contact with an older version of iOS or who uses…*gasp*… an Android, you’ll have to give them a physical copy of your access key.
Tip From an Estate Lawyer: Either way, it’s a good idea to save it as a PDF, print it, and store it securely with your estate planning documents as an extra safety measure. Your Legacy Contact will need this access key to access your account after you pass away, so it’s important to share it with them and keep it somewhere safe.
How Apple handles an account when someone dies
Upon death, the person listed as Legacy Contact has to share two pieces of information to gain access to the deceased’s account:
The access key
A death certificate
Once Apple verifies that information, they will give the Legacy Contact a unique Apple ID that allows them to access someone’s account for a limited period of time. It also invalidates the deceased person’s Apple ID.
Here’s how we rate Apple’s new Digital Legacy Program:
Although Apple’s Digital Legacy Program with the Legacy Contact option is a major leap forward, Apple gets a Social Legacy Score of 3 out of 5. The newly launched Legacy Contact feature allows users to plan for what happens to their account after death by assigning a Legacy Contact (fiduciary). However, at the time of writing this article, Apple still doesn’t have any Terms of Service or features to address incapacity.
I have mixed feeling about their choice of the term “Legacy Contact”, because Meta (formerly Facebook), uses the same term but the functionality and process is different. There is certainly room for more service provider collaboration when it comes to standardizing terminology and usage. However, it can get confusing when the same term refers to different things from platform to platform.
In addition, there are many unanswered questions, such as:
How does this feature work in a business enterprise setting?
What happens if the executor of the Will wasn’t listed on the Legacy Contact?
What happens to shared photo albums when the primary Account holder dies and the Legacy Contact feature is activated?
As Apple continues to build out its Digital Legacy Program, we will no doubt see their Social Legacy Score rise accordingly.
How Apple handles accounts if someone becomes incapacitated
Apple currently doesn’t have any pre-planning to address a situation in which an an Apple user becomes incapacitated. Further, there are no apparent terms of service or processes available to address a situation where a representative is acting on behalf of an incapacitated person.
A quick search of the word “incapacity” on the Apple website reveals, “Sorry, no matches were found.” Womp womp.
Here’s how users can fill the gaps to create a more comprehensive plan for their account:
With Apple introducing this key legacy planning feature they are now on par with Meta’s (formerly Facebook) Legacy Contact and Google’s Inactive Account Manager in terms of providing pre-planning options.
However, it’s far from offering a comprehensive digital estate planning solution. For that to happen, Account holders will need to consider these three additional areas of concern or requirements:
Think of all the important and personal information you have stored in your Apple accounts and devices. This may concern some people, so it would be worth it for Apple to consider mitigating this risk by allowing an Apple user to decide what specific pieces of information are shared (and not shared) with their Legacy Contact.
Account holders should consider alternate ways to back up important data like intellectual property. For example, if you are storing your draft manuscript on the Apple iCloud Drive, Account holders are encouraged to develop recovery or backup plans for this type of important data as risk mitigation. It may not be sufficient to completely rely on one mechanism such as the Apple Legacy Contact.
Given Apple allows a number of storage options and applications, such as photos, Account holders are encouraged to develop and test backup plans for significant digital assets. For example, consider your photos, which you might house in Apple’s iCloud or another similar platform. From a risk management perspective, given this is technology after all, do you really want to rely on one mechanism to transfer the photos?
It’s also important to remember that, despite the fact that a majority of your information might be stored in your Apple and iCloud properties, Apple’s Legacy Contact features won’t provide you with all-encompassing protection.
I’m guessing you have an account on at least one other platform? Or perhaps a Gmail account? One of the ways to start to plan for and protect your Social Media Legacy is to create a Social Media Will. It’s simple (and free) and only takes a few minutes.
The Legacy Contact feature is a great first step, however, we’d love to see more comprehensive documentation provided when it comes to explaining how it comes into effect after someone’s death. It would also be helpful to provide some further guidance for Legacy Contacts on what to do after someone passes away, especially for those who aren’t familiar with Apple devices and iCloud.
In addition, it would be beneficial for Apple to release features that allow users to plan for incapacity to round out its suite of legacy features or provide Terms of Service on how an appointed fiduciary or family member can address this situation. This may be coming so the best we can all do is stay tuned!