Losing someone is a traumatic experience, so you don't want to add the potential frustration and distress of being unable to access important information or content that has become imprisoned on their iPhone, iPad or Mac. But how can you unlock an iPhone once the owner has passed away? Here are a few things you can try, plus details of Apple's new Digital Legacy initiative that should make the process much easier.

What is Apple's Digital Legacy feature?

At WWDC 2021, Apple announced that as part of its new iCloud+ service that will replace the standard iCloud subscription in iOS 15, iPadOS15 and macOS Monterey, a new feature called Digital Legacy will become standard (although this won't be available straight after Monterey launches - Apple is saying it will arrive "later this year"). Once it arrives it will allow users to nominate specific users who can request all the data stored in their iCloud account, which will be made available if they should die. The process seems straight forward.

  1. From your iCloud account you can add a Legacy Contact.

    How to unlock an iPhone, iPad or Mac when owner dies: Add contact

  2. In the unfortunate event of your death, that person can then request access to your Apple ID, although it will require a copy of your death certificate to prove they are eligible.

    How to unlock an iPhone, iPad or Mac when the owner dies: Request access

  3. When Apple confirms the status of the device's owner, it will then grant the nominated person access to the deceased's data as well as disabling the Activation Lock on their iPhone, iPad or Mac.

Of course, to use this service, once it is available, you'll need to be running iOS 15, iPadOS 15 or macOS Monterey on your device.  

How to access a deceased person's iPhone or Mac device

While we are awaiting the launch of Digital Legacy, or if you do not have the option to upgrade, you can use one of the following methods to try to recover the data from a deceased person's device:

Recover data via iCloud

If you know the login details for the person's iCloud account or have access to their iCloud email address, then you should be able to use it to recover a large amount of data. Provided the person in question used the service, it will give you the chance to download photos, documents, contacts and other files.

  1. Go to iCloud.com.
  2. Select the Forgotten your Apple ID or Password? option.
  3. Use the iCloud email address to reset the iCloud password.

How to unlock an iPhone, iPad or Mac when owner dies: iCloud Password

Recover data on iPhone and iPad by restoring an iCloud backup

Another option, which once again requires you to have access to the deceased's iCloud account, is to wipe their device and restore a recent iCloud backup. The reason for using the restore method is that you should still have all of the data left intact, but the Activation Code on their device will be reset, allowing you to access the iPhone or iPad.

Before you attempt this, try to ascertain the last time the device was backed up, as you wouldn't want to erase the data only to find that the backup is from a couple of years ago. If there is a recent one, follow the instructions outlined in how to restore an iPhone or iPad from an iCloud or iTunes backup.

What to do if you don't know the deceased person's iCloud details

Sadly, this is probably a likely scenario for many people. All that you can do in this event is to contact Apple Support or visit your local Apple Store and explain the situation. Hopefully the people there will be able to help you gain access to the data stored on the iPhone, iPad or Mac.

Obviously, when the Digital Legacy feature arrives later in 2021 this should make the process far easier, although it will still be necessary for the Digital Legacy feature to be set up by the owner of the iPhone, but until then you'll need to rely on Apple being able to assist you through this difficult time.

The key take away is to plan for these sad events by finding out these essential passwords in advance. But that is, of course, easier said than done.

Any death can also have a financial impact, so if you decide that you want to move on the device once you've salvaged the data, read our guides on how to sell your iPhone for the best price, how to sell a Mac and how to sell an iPad.