Ten years or so ago we all kept our photographs of family, friends and our exploits in hard bound leather albums which were readily accessible to all members of the family even after someone had died. These days, however, most of us keep them in the cloud or on some form of social media platform. Difficulties arise when someone dies if they have died in circumstances where their surviving loved ones don’t know their passcode and security information in order to access their accounts. No problem you would think? Just go to the service provider and they will provide access? After all, you can show that you are entitled to have access to their photographs because you are, for example, their spouse or next of kin or maybe just the executor of their estate. Well no, you cannot - tech giants will often refuse access to a deceased’s account in such circumstances as Rachael Thompson (“Rachael”) recently discovered.
Rachael met her husband, Matt when she was 19 and he was 18. They married 10 years later and had one daughter, Matilda, now aged 10. Tragically, in 2015, Matt took his own life. It was very important to Rachael to keep memories of Matt alive for her daughter. Matt had some 4,500 images and 900 videos stored on his Apple Iphone. Rachael therefore asked Apple for access to his account so that she could retrieve them but Apple refused to allow her such access stating that they would only do so with a court order given that Matt had not specified what access others should have to his access in the event of his death.
Rachael took Apple to court and some three and a half years later has finally obtained an order compelling Apple to allow her to have access to his account.
This unnecessary, not to mention extremely expensive exercise, has caused Rachael additional distress at a time when she should just have been free to grieve for her husband and spend time with her daughter looking at images of him and them as a family and remembering happier times. The judge who heard the case has called for a change in the law but in the meantime, it is hoped that this latest case will set a precedent upon which tech giants will be compelled to allow access to accounts without the need for a court order to be obtained.
It remains to be seen the extent to which tech giants will grant such access on a voluntarily basis. In the meantime, all users of online accounts should give thought as to how they can permit their loved ones to be granted access to their accounts in the event of their death – a simple clause in your will or letter of nomination deposited with your solicitors may well suffice for this purpose.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.