12 October 2021

Digital Assets Update: Apple’s Digital Legacy Program

Since we published our comments on access to digital assets after death in the FT Adviser earlier this year, the thorny issue has moved no further up the government’s list of priorities. However, it is encouraging to see a growing awareness of the problem among tech giants, who are beginning to introduce more in-service solutions to enable personal representatives and family members to gain access to a deceased person's digital assets.

It remains impossible to direct by will the ultimate destination of assets such as your email account or your photos stored on iCloud. However, you should not take this as carte blanche to ignore them when considering your estate planning. We advised earlier this year that not only should you regularly review your online assets so you are aware of their extent, but you should also take advantage of all in-service options to give your preferred individuals the access they will need after your death.

We were pleased to hear Apple's announcement last month that they will follow other service providers, (such as Google) in introducing a post-death process to streamline data access after a user's death.

This announcement was made as part of the iOS 15 preview and is known as the Digital Legacy program. As it has not yet been released, there is still much speculation over the form that it will take, but it seems to be a way to grant designated users access to your iCloud account and personal information after your death. This should be particularly useful for those who store photos or videos on their iCloud account, or emails relating to bank accounts, credit cards, or shareholdings.

We understand that the Digital Legacy program gives a user the option to nominate an individual (known as a legacy contact) during their lifetime. On the user’s death, that legacy contact will, on presentation of the deceased’s death certificate, be able to view emails, photos, notes and more. Apple have reassured users that the digital legacy contact will not be able to see any payment information or other sensitive information.

While information about the scheme is limited at this stage, we understand that a key drawback is the requirement for the nominated legacy contact to have their own Apple ID. This will limit the scope of people whom you might be able to appoint as your approved legacy contact. In addition, Apple has implied that the data will be accessible for only a short period; this could prove problematic if the extent of the deceased’s assets takes some time to determine.

We anticipate and hope that Apple's decision will prove an impetus for other smaller tech companies to introduce equivalent procedures. In the meantime, it is therefore becoming ever more important to review what options are available for each of your online accounts in order to ensure that your loved ones have the access you desire after your death. Without such foresight, not only may the job of your personal representatives prove to be significantly more challenging, but your loved ones may end up without access to data which you wanted them to have.

We recommend therefore that when reviewing your will (which you should do at least every five years, and also on major life events e.g. marriage or the birth of a child), you also make a list of all your online accounts and other assets, and consider the best way to pass on all such information after your death.

Guy is a Partner and Zahava an Associate, both in our Private Client team.

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