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Every iPhone user should care about Apple's Digital Legacy feature

iCloud: Everything you need to know!
iCloud: Everything you need to know! (Image credit: iMore)

Update: Digital Legacy is now available in iOS 15.2.

While it's not flashy and won't grab a lot of headlines, Apple's upcoming Digital Legacy program is one of the best iPhone features coming in iOS 15.

The feature, which allows someone you choose to access your digital information stored in iCloud after you die, did not ship with the launch version of iOS 15 and is instead "coming in a software update," according to Apple. However, there are some signs that it is coming sooner rather than later, and it is something every Apple device owner should care about.

The only certainty in life

Apple Id Digital Legacy Wwdc

Apple Id Digital Legacy Wwdc (Image credit: Apple)

Talking about death is not easy, but it is essential. While we're told to ensure our affairs are in order as we get older, it's prudent to have plans in place much earlier since life is unpredictable.

The process for doing so hasn't necessarily kept up with modern times, though. With the amount of information we store digitally these days, it's not always easy for the next of kin to access data in the event of a loved one's death.

Previously for Apple users, the next of kin of the deceased person had to get a court order that named them as the rightful inheritor of their loved one's personal information before Apple would hand anything over. Alternatively, you'd need to leave password information with your lawyer to hand over. Not only is that trusting a third party with that info, but it's another thing to remember to do every time you change your password.

We're told to ensure our affairs are in order as we get older, but life is unpredictable.

The Apple Digital Legacy program aims to solve this, at least in part, by allowing users to designate Legacy Contacts who can access their information in the event of their death. These Legacy Contacts will receive an Access Key which, along with the account owner's death certificate, can be used to access the account information.

Legacy Contacts won't be able to access everything because certain types of content are encrypted at a device level — Apple specifically stated that the iCloud Keychain, payment information, subscriptions, and licensed media would not be accessible. However, data like photos, emails, notes, and so on can be downloaded for a limited time before Apple permanently deletes the account.

Digital estate planning

Apple Id Digital Legacy Contacts Wwdc

Apple Id Digital Legacy Contacts Wwdc (Image credit: Apple)

I think every Apple device owner should set Digital Legacy up as soon as it is available, perhaps as soon as iOS 15.1. It should become a commonplace part of estate planning in our modern world. We also saw in the beta cycle that it takes just minutes to do, so there's no reason not to do it right away.

As Mike Abbott, VP of Apple Cloud Services, put it when announcing the upcoming feature at WWDC:

"We don't often think about it, but it's important that we can easily pass down information to family members or friends when we pass away. So you'll now be able to add people to your account as Legacy Contacts. So when you're gone, they can request access, and your information can be passed along quickly and easily."

I was on the wrong end of dozens of conversations about this topic during my time as an Apple Genius.

The number of people coming into the Apple Store to access a deceased loved one's devices is surprising, and it was never easy to tell them there was essentially nothing you could do to help them. But, unfortunately, those conversations will continue unless people set up some Legacy Contacts before it's too late to do so.

All of your photos, contacts, documents, notes, and more are locked behind your Apple ID password that you, rightly, haven't told anyone. It's all well and good while you're here to type that password in, but less so when you're gone.

It's rather morbid to think about, but put yourself in the shoes of the surviving family member, and it's not that hard to see that having Digital Legacy set up is the right thing to do.

Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.