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How to set up an Apple legacy contact on your iPhone or Mac (and why you should do it now)

A hand holding an iPhone on which they'll set an Apple legacy contact for their account.
AUTHOR: Graham Southorn

What happens to your Apple iCloud data after you die?

You might assume that the executors of your Will would have the legal right to access your data stored with Apple. But Apple says they cannot do this without a court order.

Fortunately, Apple is one of the tech companies that has made post-death planning a little easier by including a legacy contact feature in its software.

In this article, I’ll delve into the reasons for setting it up and simple steps to enable it, ensuring the protection and accessibility of your account.

What is an Apple legacy contact?

A legacy contact can preserve your memories and handle any necessary tasks related to your Apple account.

They will have the ability to access certain aspects of your account, such as iCloud data, photos, and files.

They can be a family member, friend, or other person you trust to handle your digital assets.

What types of data can an Apple legacy contact manage?

Your legacy contact will be able to manage all the data you store in your iCloud and iCloud backups but nothing else.

So if you keep your photos on some other service (for example, Google Photos), your Apple legacy contact clearly would not be able to access them.

Importantly, you cannot currently exclude certain types of data. So your Apple legacy contact will be able to access all of the following if you use these on your iPhone or Mac:

  • iCloud Photos
  • Notes
  • Mail
  • Contacts
  • Calendars
  • Reminders
  • Messages in iCloud
  • Call history
  • Files stored in iCloud Drive
  • Health Data
  • Voice Memos
  • Safari Bookmarks and Reading List

In addition, they’ll also be able to access your iCloud backup. This could include App Store apps, photos, videos and other content that’s stored on your device.

The legacy contact can also delete this data.

What types of data won’t your Apple legacy contact be able to access?

It’s fairly obvious stuff; mainly things you’ve purchased or your card details. It includes:

  • Licensed media – films, music and books you’ve bought.
  • In-app purchases – upgrades, subscriptions, game currency, etc.
  • Payment information – includes cards saved in Apple Pay
  • Keychain information – includes Safari user names and passwords, internet accounts, and Wi-Fi passwords.

How to set up an Apple legacy contact

The following instructions vary slightly for iPhone and iOS on a Mac – I’ve highlighted the differences where applicable.

Step 1: Access your Apple ID settings

  1. Open the Settings app on your Apple device.
  2. Tap on your name at the top of the screen (top left on Mac) to access your Apple ID settings.

Step 2: Set up your legacy contact

  1. Click on on “Password & Security” (2nd option down)
  2. Scroll down to find “Legacy Contact” near the bottom.
  3. Tap on “Add Legacy Contact” and choose a person from your contacts. On a Mac, the person has to be someone you’ve already entered in the Contacts app. On an iPhone, they might already be stored.
  4. On an iPhone, click the message button under their name. On a Mac, select their name from the Contacts app.

Step 3: Share access key

  1. Print the access key – it looks like a QR code with a long string of letters and numbers. (The QR code didn’t seem to work when I tried it!)
  2. Give the access key to your chosen legacy contact. It’s a good idea to store a copy with your Will as well.

Step 4: After your death

  1. The legacy contact will be able to request access to your data from Apple. However, they will need to send Apple a death certificate and the access key.
  2. They have three years from when the first legacy account request was approved to take action. After that, the legacy account will be deleted permanently. 

Need to know

You may be able to send the access key digitally by using the messaging app or sharing it by email. But I recommend printing it out and giving it to them in person, partly so you know they’ve got it and also so that you can explain it to them.

You can also print off a second copy to store with your Will at the same time.

It’s probably a good idea to add more than one legacy contact, just in case your first choice dies before you or can’t act due to illness. But it’s worth knowing that every legacy contact can make decisions, including deleting all of your data.

One point that’s well worth knowing about is that your date of birth, as stored in your Apple account, needs to be correct (presumably to match what will be shown on your death certificate). So if you’ve given a fake birthday online, you should change it to your real one.

What happens to your iPhone?

Once the legacy contact request has been approved, Activation Lock is removed. This is the Apple security feature that disables a device if it’s stolen.

After that, whoever inherits your iPhone, iPad or Mac would need to restore the factory settings before they can use it again with another Apple ID.

In my experience

I’ve not had anyone ask me specifically about Apple legacy contacts when making a Will in Bristol. But with 51% of smartphone users in the UK using iPhones, it’s clearly going to affect a lot of people.

I can’t help but feel that Apple’s legacy feature contact is a disappointingly blunt instrument. You either grant access to everything in iCloud, or nothing.

Unlike Google’s legacy contact feature, Apple’s does not let you set permissions for particular types of data. The legacy contact has access not only to your messages but also all your photos, health data and appointments, which may not be desirable.

The fact that multiple legacy contacts, if you add more than one, have the same blanket permissions is also disappointing.

Whilst it’s definitely prudent to add more than one legacy contact, I can see a risk that one of them “goes rogue” and delete all your data. I hope that Apple reconsiders this in the future.

To mitigate the risk, you could switch to other services for particular tasks. For example, you could use Google to send and receive email and keep Apple iCloud purely for photos, or vice versa.

Chances are that most of us are using multiple cloud services in any case so we’ll need to set multiple legacy contacts in different services.

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The information contained in these articles is for general interest purposes only. We take every precaution to ensure that the information is correct at the time of publishing but errors can occur. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, there may be omissions or inaccuracies in the information. Bristol Wills & Estate Planning Ltd is not responsible for any errors or omissions or for any results obtained from the use of this information. You should never rely on the information in these articles as a substitute for professional legal advice, whether from Bristol Wills & Estate Planning or any other legal service or professional.

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