The predicament of managing digital assets after death

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Apple was in the news in a big way last week surrounding a highly publicized media storm regarding a widow’s attempt to access an iPad belonging to her deceased husband. Access to digital assets after the death of a loved one has been a contentious topic for years. Wth the rapid growth of Cloud computing and storage, the problem will continue to present challenges for all those involved.  Unfortunately, we won’t see a solution until there exists a formal policy addressing  how to handle what many see as a no brainer.

What happened?

Mrs. Bush, a 72 year old Canadian widow wanted to play a card game on her late husband’s iPad. She knew his iPad password, but when the game she wanted to play wasn’t working properly, she attempted to re-download the app.  This is when she discovered she didn’t know his Apple ID, and was unable to gain access his account. Her daughter called Apple to see if they could help retrieve the password or possibly reset the account. After making contact with an Apple employee on the phone, her daughter was told they could help, and that all they needed was a copy of the will and the death certificate, in addition to talking with Mrs Bush. However, this was not the case, and ultimately Apple indicated Mrs Bush would need a court order to gain access to her husband’s password.

Unhappy with Apple’s stance, the Bush family reached out to Go Public, who contacted Apple on her behalf.  Apple then reached out to the family, and apologized for the misunderstanding, before they offered to solve the issue without a court order.

Mrs Bush had this to say about the request for the court order

“I thought it was ridiculous. I could get the pensions, I could get benefits, I could get all kinds of things from the federal government and the other government. But from Apple, I couldn’t even get a silly password.”

Why did Apple take this stance?

Unfortunately, this is not a new issue–with Apple or any other company that handles digital media. One of the biggest dilemmas is that there isn’t an official policy for customers trying to retrieve passwords and digital information of family members who have died. A court order, while appearing obnoxious and costly, protects Apple from fraud and preserves the legality of the situation. Documents such as death certificates and wills can be forged. While this is unlikely the case with the Bush family, Apple can’t possibly be expected to evaluate each and every circumstance individually. The user base is just too large. In this situation I’m guessing they didn’t have access to Mr Bush’s email account, or they could have possibly used the iForgot tool to reset the password.

What needs to change?

To start, we need to begin the conversation of how to best manage digital asset access, and designate caretakers of that info. The complexities surrounding how this info is moderated is ultimately the responsibility of the owner. For good or bad, there is a great deal of our personal information that is stored in the cloud these days, and it has grown exponentially in the last 5 years. I’m guessing that most of us don’t give enough thought into what happens to this information once we die. We can make it easier on our loved ones and those we leave behind by creating contingency plans to address who has access to our information. There are several steps we can choose from right now to plan ahead and better prepare for the transfer of digital assets.

Communicate your wishes / Share passwords
-Seems like a no brainer, but all too often we don’t plan ahead and make this a priority

Add access to your information in your Will.
-This is probably the most thorough, and reliable method to ensure your digital assets are handled in the matter you choose

Password Manager
-Use a password manager like LastPass to create a Family Shared Folder with all your passwords. This is a great idea–especially if you have a large family, or an extensive list of passwords to share.

One consideration that is often overlooked in the hoopla surrounding access to digital media is whether or not an individual wanted their information shared in the first place. We might assume incorrectly that we should be granted access because that information belonged to our spouse or child or Grandparent, etc, when in reality they wanted to keep this information private. The only way to be sure, though, is to be diligent and plan ahead.

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