How to Protect Digital Property

When people built wealth, assets were usually tangible: real estate, investments, cash, or jewelry. However, the last year has seen a huge jump in digital assets, which includes cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Combine this growing asset class with the coming biggest wealth transfer in history, says the article “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?” from Tech Crunch, and the problems of inheriting assets will take more than a complete search of the family attic.

One survey found only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows the details of their digital assets, from the location of the online accounts to passwords. However, digital assets that require two factor authentication or biometrics to gain access may make even this information useless.

There are many reports about people who purchased digital assets like Bitcoin and then lost their passwords or threw away their computers. More than $250 million in client assets vanished when a cryptocurrency exchange founder died and private keys to these accounts could not be found.

Digital assets need to be a part of anyone’s estate plan. A last will and testament is used to dictate how assets are to be distributed. If there is no will, the state’s estate law will distribute assets. A complete list of accounts and assets should not be part of a will, since it becomes a public document when it goes through probate. However, a complete list of assets and accounts needs to be prepared and shared with a trusted person.

Even traditional assets, like bank accounts and investment accounts, are lost when no one knows of their existence. If a family or executor doesn’t know about accounts, and if there are no paper statements mailed to the decedent’s home, it’s not likely that the assets will be found.

Things get more complicated with digital assets. By their nature, digital assets are decentralized.  This is part of their attraction for many people. Knowing that the accounts or digital property exists is only part one. Knowing how to access them after death is difficult. Account names, private keys to digital assets and passwords need to be gathered and protected. Directives or directions for what you want to happen to the accounts after you die need to be created, but not every platform has policies to do this.

Password sharing is explicitly prohibited by most website and app owners. Privacy laws also prohibit using someone else’s password, which is technically “account holder impersonation.” Digital accounts that require two factor authentication or use biometrics, like facial recognition, make it impossible for an executor to gain access to the data.

Some platforms have created a means of identifying a person who may be in charge of your digital assets, including Facebook and more recently, LinkedIn. Some exchanges, like Ethereum, have procedures for death-management. Some will require a copy of the will as part of their process to release funds to an estate, so you will need to name the asset (although not the account number).

A digital wallet can be used to store access information for digital assets, if the family is reasonably comfortable using one. A complete list of assets should include tangible and digital assets. It needs to be updated annually or whenever you add new assets.

Consult a qualified estate planning attorney about how to protect your digital assets. They will be able to help you create a plan to assure your assets are protected properly.

Reference: Tech Crunch (April 5, 2021) “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?”

Digital Assets in Estate Planning: The Brave New World of Estate Planning

Cryptocurrency is almost mainstream, despite its complexity, says Insurance News Net in the article “Westchester County Elder Law Attorney… Sheds Light on Cryptocurrency in Estate Planning.” The IRS has made it clear that as far as federal taxation is concerned, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are to be treated as property. However, since cryptocurrency is not tangible property, how is it incorporated into an estate plan?

For starters, recordkeeping is extremely important for any cryptocurrency owner. Records need to be kept that are current and income taxes need to be paid on the transactions every single year. When the owner dies, the beneficiaries will receive the cryptocurrency at its current fair market value. The cost basis is stepped up to the date of death value and it is includable in the decedent’s taxable estate.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The name of the Bitcoin or cryptocurrency owner is not publicly recorded. Instead, ownership is tied to a specific Bitcoin address that can only be accessed by the person who holds two “digital keys.” These are not physical keys, but codes. One “key” is public, and the other key is private. The private key is the secret number that allows the spending of the cryptocurrency.

Both of these digital keys are stored in a “digital wallet,” which, just like the keys, is not an actual wallet but a system used to secure payment information and passwords.

One of the dangers of cryptocurrency is that unlike other financial assets, if that private key is somehow lost, there is no way that anyone can access the digital currency.

It should also be noted that cryptocurrency can be included as an asset in a last will and testament as well as a revocable or irrevocable trust. However, cryptocurrency is highly volatile, and its value may swing wildly.

The executor or trustee of an estate or trust must take steps to ensure that the estate or the trust is in compliance with the Prudent Investor Act. The holdings in the trust or the estate will need to be diversified with other types of investments. If this is not followed, even ownership of a small amount of cryptocurrency may lead to many issues with how the estate or trust was being managed.

Digital currency and digital assets are two relatively new areas for estate planning, although both have been in common usage for many years. As more boomers are dying, planning for these intangible assets has become more commonplace. Failing to have a plan or providing incorrect directions for how to handle digital assets, is becoming problematic for many individuals.

Speak with an estate planning attorney who has experience in digital and non-traditional assets to learn how to protect your heirs and your estate from losses associated with these new types of assets.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Feb. 25, 2019) “Westchester County Elder Law Attorney… Sheds Light on Cryptocurrency in Estate Planning”