Everyone forgets a computer password now and then. That’s why all locked computers, software programs and websites have recovery protocols with secret questions and handy “I-forgot-my-password” tabs. But what if your relative has died and you never had the passwords in the first place? Then you need to know how to get into a locked computer.

This happened recently to a widow in Canada who wanted to get into her recently deceased husband’s Apple account. The widow and her husband had shared an iPad and an Apple computer. She knew the logins for both computers, but he had set up the Apple ID they both used and had a separate password for that. She didn’t realize she needed that password until her favorite card game stopped working and she tried to reload it from the App Store.

After months of trying to work with Apple customer service, including providing them with notarized copies of his death certificate and his will, the widow was told she needed a court order to get into her late husband’s locked account to get her card game back. (Or, of course, she could set up her own account and pay for everything a second time.)

While trying to download a computer game may seem trivial, this is an increasingly common—and increasingly thorny—issue for executors and heirs. In the rush to protect our online privacy, computer companies and software developers are constantly upgrading their system safeguards to make getting into a locked computer as difficult as possible.

Unfortunately, estate laws haven’t caught up with technology. So, if someone dies without providing the password to their locked computer to their heirs or attorneys, getting access to important documents, such as financial statements and contact lists, can be difficult. Even court-certified executors may hit a brick wall when it comes to trying to get into a loved one’s computer.

Almost Legal

For the tech savvy executor, there are a few options for how to get into a locked computer. For most Windows-based PCs, the Windows Password Key is a good place to start. It’s designed specifically for resetting lost passwords for administrative accounts using a second computer and a bootable external drive, such as a CD or USB drive. Apple does have a system for resetting administrative passwords, but it may require some guesswork. For example, when you try to log on, if the password field has a question mark in it, click it and you’ll get a password hint. If you know the answer, you’re in. If that doesn’t work, or you don’t know the answer, try logging in without a password. Just because the system asks for a password doesn’t mean the user set one up. Otherwise, you’ll have to try your luck with Apple Support.

Another option is to take the computer to your local tech gurus. They may or may not want a copy of the death certificate and/or your executor credentials, just to cover their potential liabilities before breaking into the system.

Once You’re In

Even if you unlock the computer itself, that won’t help you access any programs or accounts that are individually locked with passwords. You’ll have to work with each software provider individually to get into those.

One bright spot, though, is Google, which has made it easier for executors to get in. You can submit a request here for access to a deceased person’s account information.

You’ll also need to work individually with any social media platforms the deceased person may have been on to access those accounts. (Click here for our guidelines on shutting down a Facebook account.)

Unified Standards

Even more confusing than the technology itself are the laws surrounding digital files. In most states, getting into a locked computer and having the legal right to what’s in there are two different things. Also, be prepared to discover things you may not expect.

The Uniform Law Commission, which works to help unify state laws, has proposed the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which would give executors, trustees or the person appointed by the court complete access to a decedent’s digital life. So far around 25 states have adopted the act or something similar, but it’s far from the law of the land yet.

Until then, executors will have to work with the court or the estate attorney to clarify their right to access locked computers and password-protected files. And, of course, they’ll need a lot of patience working with customer support.

As for the widow in Canada, after a rash of negative headlines from the international press, Apple released a statement saying the company was working privately with the widow to get her game back.

 

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At Wayforth we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.