Business·Go Public

Apple demands widow get court order to access dead husband's password

A Victoria widow is outraged over Apple's demand that she obtain a court order to retrieve her dead husband's password so she can play games on an iPad.

Digital property after death a murky issue, says estate lawyer

Do I need to leave my passwords in my will?

8 years ago
Duration 2:21
Apple demands widow get court order to access dead husband's password

A Victoria widow is outraged over Apple's demand that she obtain a court order to retrieve her dead husband's password so she can play games on an iPad.

  "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. It's nonsense," 72-year-old Peggy Bush told Go Public.   

Experts warn this is a growing problem, as more people die leaving important information and valuable digital property on computers and electronic devices.

Bush lost her husband David to lung cancer in August. The couple owned an iPad and an Apple computer. Bush knew the iPad's log-in code, but didn't know the Apple ID password.

Peggy poses with her husband, David. (Family photo)

"I just had the iPad. I didn't touch his computer, it was too confusing to me … I didn't realize he had a specific password I should have known about … it just never crossed my mind," Bush said.

So when her card game app stopped working, the family tried to reload it and realized it couldn't be done without the password.

I don't want anyone requesting my passwords and receiving them. Talk about opening up another level of scams — especially on the elderly.- Reader feedback from user Tom Aaron.

That's when her daughter, Donna Bush, called Apple to ask if it could help retrieve the password or reset the account.

The Bushes could get a new Apple ID account and start from scratch, but that would mean repurchasing everything they had already paid for. 

"I just called Apple thinking it would be a fairly simple thing to take care of, and the person on the phone said, 'Sure, no problem. We just need the will and the death certificate and to talk to Mom.'" 

But when Donna called back along with her mother and the requested information, she said, customer service had never heard of her. 

Family told to go to court

After many phone calls and two months of what she describes as the "runaround," Donna provided Apple with the serial numbers for the items, her father's will that left everything to his wife, Peggy, and a notarized death certificate — but was told it wasn't enough.

"I finally got someone who said, 'You need a court order,'" she said. "I was just completely flummoxed. What do you mean a court order? I said that was ridiculous, because we've been able to transfer the title of the house, we've been able to transfer the car, all these things, just using a notarized death certificate and the will.
Donna Bush spent months going back and forth with Apple trying to get her late father's Apple ID reset. (CBC)

"I then wrote a letter to Tim Cook, the head of Apple, saying this is ridiculous. All I want to do is download a card game for my mother on the iPad. I don't want to have to go to court to do that, and I finally got a call from customer relations who confirmed, yes, that is their policy." 

A court order can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on if a lawyer's services are required.

Peggy Bush said she couldn't believe it either. After waiting months to get that password reset, she bought herself a laptop. It's not an Apple MacBook.


That's when the family contacted Go Public.


Apple won't talk policy

After Go Public contacted Apple, it did reach out to the Bush family and apologize for what it called a "misunderstanding," offering to help the family solve the problem — without a court order. At the time of publication, it was working with Donna Bush to do that. 

Go Public asked Apple what its official policy is for customers trying to retrieve the passwords and digital information of family members who have died, but the company said it wouldn't comment.

Donna Bush says she was 'flummoxed' when Apple told her a court order would be needed to give her mother Peggy access to her father's Apple ID. (CBC)

The policy is the bigger issue, according to Donna.

"We certainly don't want other people to have to go through the hassle that we've gone through. We'd really like Apple to develop a policy that is far more understanding of what people go through, especially at this very difficult time in our family's life, having just lost my dad," she said.

Canada not ready for 'digital legacy' problem

Daniel Nelson, a Toronto estate lawyer who specializes in digital assets, said Bush's problem is becoming a bigger issue.

  "More and more people are transferring their lives online and it's going to become a greater and greater proportion of one's estate … [it could be] a gambling account, video game account — all have value — tremendous value in some cases," he said.
Estate lawyer Daniel Nelson says Canadian laws need to be more clear about who owns or controls digital legacies. (CBC)

Nelson said the problem is that while users own the material online for the most part, access to it is controlled by  providers like Apple. Therefore, those companies have the right to set the rules when it comes to accessing what we put online and the content we buy. 


Nelson said Apple's demand for a court order seems heavy-handed in Bush's case, especially considering the low monetary value of the Apple account. 


He also said providers need clear policies when it comes to dealing with digital property and access, and Canadian laws need to be more clear about who owns or controls what is put online after someone dies.


"When it's digital property it gets murky. While that photograph on Google cloud or on Facebook belongs to you, the access belongs to the service provider," Nelson said.


"It would be useful for legislation to clarify that … executors have authority to log into accounts and extract digital assets, including changing passwords."


His advice is that until laws are updated and service providers change their policies, Canadians should include clauses in their wills that allow the executor to deal with digital assets.


Nelson said wills should include information on where to find passwords, but not the passwords themselves, for security reasons. 

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Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.