After loved ones pass away, family members must distribute their estate, assets, and sort through paperwork, files, and their digital afterlife. Many items on the to-do list include distributing assets according to a will.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Will Apple Unlock a Deceased Person’s iPhone?
- 5 Different Methods for Unlocking a Deceased Person’s iPhone
In our digital age where everything is stored on a computer, tablet, or phone, not all digital items are easy to get into — even if you can prove your relative’s death.
If you have a deceased relative who enjoyed using Apple products, you might need to learn how to unlock a deceased person's iPhone. Read on for a few tips you can try that just might do the trick.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, we have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
Will Apple Unlock a Deceased Person’s iPhone?
Apple is incredibly well known for its security measures on iPhones. Set up as a deterrent to thieving, iPhones are on virtual lockdown as soon as the phone is removed from the owner and the passcode is unknown. This heightened security can become a serious problem when relatives need access to a deceased person’s phone or device.
Though other phone companies have provided reasonable solutions to this problem, Apple seems light years away from providing an answer. In 2016, Apple even came under fire for refusing to unlock an older iPhone owned by a terrorist who participated in a mass shooting in California.
Apple’s official position on unlocking phones is that doing so is a violation of civil liberties. The company put rules in place to protect data stored on phones, regardless of who owns it. The issue for bereaved relatives is that Apple, until recently, has continued protecting this data even if the owners of it pass away.
As of 2020, legality regarding ownership of a person’s digital legacy and possessions, in addition to Apple’s methods for dealing with them, remains limited.
5 Different Methods for Unlocking a Deceased Person’s iPhone
If you need to unlock a deceased relative’s iPhone as part of your executor duties, you can try a few things before you duke it out with Apple.
1. Try your fingerprint or your smile
Apple iPhones offer many ways you can sign in and unlock your phone. The company was one of the first to come out with a fingerprint reader and, shortly thereafter, the facial recognition ID. If your loved one entered your fingerprint or your face into their phone, you may be able to unlock it this way and bypass the passcode.
For fingerprint ID, simply touch the fingerprint reader on the back of the phone. If your print had been entered, you’ll see the lock screen “unlock” and you’ll then have full access to the phone.
Face ID works similarly. Simply hold the front-facing camera up so your face is in full view of the phone. If your face is recognized, the phone will immediately unlock and you’ll have access to their digital files, pictures, and anything else stored in the phone.
2. Check password managers
If your loved one used a password manager, this is the perfect place to start. The difficulty relatives face in unlocking an iPhone has to do with the passcode a person puts on it. If the passcode is unknown to family members, then getting the phone unlocked is basically impossible. Finding the passcode, then, is essential.
If your family member used a password manager to store important information like bank sign-ins, credit card login information, and phone passwords, check there. Scan through all the entries to see if your loved one recorded the Apple passcode. If you find it, you’re in!
Pro tip: Check to see if multiple password managers are in use or are in use on multiple devices. Some password managers will not sync from one device to another if the “free” version of those apps is used. In this case, password managers on each device should be checked for differing information that may help you unlock the phone.
3. Trying syncing up to a computer
If your loved one was particularly tech-savvy, they may have used the syncing feature that allows a phone to sync to a chosen device. During the initial setup to sync a phone to a device, your loved one would have done two things: 1. Entered a passcode and 2. Marked the computer as a “trusted” device.
If your loved one marked a device as “trusted,” the good news is that this computer remains a trusted device until marked otherwise. When syncing in the future, the passcode isn’t required since the computer is already trusted. Syncing may occur automatically then once the phone is connected to it.
By syncing the phone with the computer, you can access anything on the phone and sync or download items including pictures, music, and other pieces of data. This effectively bypasses the password and is good for downloading. This workaround does not, however, provide direct access to the phone without syncing.
4. Check password docs on the computer
Many people who do not use a password manager might still keep a list of passwords somewhere accessible. The more accounts a person has, the more passwords they’ll need to remember. It would make sense that a document might be found somewhere on their computer that lists various passwords for devices and accounts.
Rather than scanning through every file in existence on a laptop, the easiest way to search for a password doc is to type “password,” “accounts,” or “iPhone” into the search bar on the computer. By searching with these keywords, the computer will bring up any documents where those words appear.
If you do find a password document, keep in mind that this, too, might be passworded. If it is and you aren’t aware of a passcode for the document, accessing the file is virtually impossible.
5. Apply to Apple for assistance
Apple is notoriously strict when it comes to recovering passwords or aiding anyone in opening a passworded phone from a deceased relative. Applying to Apple for assistance is a last resort, as the process itself often causes grieving loved ones undue frustration.
Apple itself is limited in what it can do. The company has built no backdoor into its software for unlocking iPhones but can provide access to backed-up materials if your loved one synced their phone to the iCloud.
To obtain backed up data from the cloud, Apple needs several documents, including:
- A certified copy of your loved one’s death certificate
- Proof of your executorship
- Proof of your identity
- A court order for Apple to release data from your loved one’s phone
Without a court order and the documents listed above, Apple will not be able to help in any way. If you reside in a state where probate is not required, or you’re distributing assets with a small estate affidavit, you’ll still need to petition the courts to provide you with a statement of release for your loved one’s data.
6. Delete your loved one’s Apple ID
If you still can’t access your loved one’s phone, the most you may be able to do is to delete the Apple ID. To delete the ID, you’ll need to provide a certified copy of your loved one’s death certificate, proof of your executorship, and proof of your ID. Only the executor of an estate may request the deletion of a deceased relative’s Apple ID.
Obtaining data from a locked phone is difficult. Though not everyone has the time or ability to plan ahead and unexpected deaths do occur, the best you can do is create a plan for what will happen to your own digital afterlife by following two simple steps.
1. Create a digital legacy plan
The best way to avoid unnecessary pain, frustration, discouragement, and hassle when it comes to providing your relatives access to your phone is to create a digital legacy plan.
This is a simple plan that outlines what you want to happen to your digital accounts after you pass away. It also provides everything an executor will need to close or archive accounts and access your iPhone.
2. Share your plan
Once you’ve created your plan, sit down with the person you’ve appointed executor and discuss what is included.
Go over your wishes for each account, share where your executor can locate passwords and other information, and ask if your executor has all the necessary information. When you both believe that all information is ready and accessible, store it in a secure location so it’s accessible later on.
Preparation is Key
Preparation is key in a person’s digital afterlife. Knowing what accounts they have and the passwords to access them will make life much easier. If you aren’t privy to this information, however, all you can do is give it your best shot and try your best to access the phone and its contents.