Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What are the Negatives of Investing in Cryptocurrency?

When Matthew Mellon died suddenly in 2018, he was worth almost $200 million. He owned nine sports cars, a watch worth more than most American’s annual income and left one daughter the priceless collection of Mellon family silver. However, he also left an estate mess for heirs, according to a recent article “How a cryptocurrency fortune crippled a deceased billionaire’s estate” from the daily dot.

Aside from the sports cars, watch and the family silver, most of Mellon’s assets, estimated at more than $193 million, were in a cryptocurrency known as XRP, managed by the company Ripple. One court document noted the cryptocurrency made up 97% of the entire estate. Mellon’s estate disaster was unlike most situations when assets can’t be accounted for. His multi-million cryptocurrency assets were secured by digital keys in a digital wallet. No one in the family knew where any of this was.

The online community and attorneys assumed the XRP assets were lost forever. However, there were a few twists to the story.

Matthew Mellon was a member of two powerful banking families, the Mellons and the Drexels. He reportedly inherited $25 million as a young man and served as chair of the New York Republican Party Finance Committee, to which he’d made a six-figure donation. He was married to Tamara Mellon, founder of the Jimmy Choo shoe brand. The marriage was one of two, both ending in divorce.

His investment in cryptocurrency began with a $2 million investment in XRP in late 2017, after testing the cryptocurrency concept with Bitcoin. He became a global “ambassador” for XRP. According to Forbes, at one point his investment was worth nearly $1 billion, but the rally ended, and the currency depreciated rapidly during 2018.

The family was doubtful about his involvement in XRP because Mellon struggled with substance abuse. The day he died of a heart attack, was the day he was scheduled to check into a drug rehabilitation facility to treat an OxyContin addition.

Left behind after his death were two ex-wives, three young children and an outdated will. There was no mention of the estimated $193 million in XRP. The keys to the cryptocurrency were allegedly kept on devices under other people’s names in locations across the country. This secrecy led estate lawyers scrambling to gain control of his XRP, which fluctuated up and down by as much as 30% in the weeks after his death. Every day they did not have the ability to sell, increased the risk of not being able to liquidate his biggest asset.

Based on his relationship with Ripple, his attorneys were able to get in contact with the right people at the company and gain access to his XRP. However, this does not happen for regular people, no matter how much the cryptocurrency is worth.

Gaining access to the digital currency was just the start. Mellon had an agreement with Ripple that he could only sell off a small amount of XRP daily. The attorneys were able to negotiate a slightly higher number but could not move fast enough to generate the cash needed to pay off the estate’s debts. This made sense for Ripple—a big sell-off would have an extremely negative impact on XRP’s value, just as wide-scale dumping of a stock would cut its value.

Mellon was also years behind on income tax returns, and the IRS wanted a piece of his multi-million dollar estate. In addition, two dozen entities, mostly private individuals, claimed he owed them money, ranging from a few hundred to nearly six million. There was a posthumous sexual harassment claim filed against him by a housekeeper. The estate paid $60 million in federal estate tax, and debts were settled in January 2021, almost three years after his death because of the inability to sell the cryptocurrency.

Most people don’t lead such a complicated personal or financial life. However, in this case, an updated will would have spared the family all the drama and stress of a high-stakes estate disaster. Proper estate planning could have protected the estate from a big tax bite and kept the Mellon’s family business private.

Reference: daily dot (Dec. 23, 2021) “How a cryptocurrency fortune crippled a deceased billionaire’s estate”

How Does Cryptocurrency Work in an Estate Plan?

Crypto-assets, including cryptocurrencies and non-currency blockchain tokens, hold significant family wealth today and present challenges to securing, transferring, protecting and gifting, as explained in the article “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan” from U.S. News & World Report.

Traditional estate planning is evolving to include this new asset class, as digital asset investors embrace a market worth more than $1 trillion. Experienced investors who use digital assets to expand their asset diversification are more likely to understand the importance of protecting their investment through estate planning. However, first time investors who own a small amount of cryptocurrency or the early adapters who bought Bitcoins at the very start and now are worth millions, may not be as aware of the importance of digital asset estate planning.

Unlike traditional bank accounts, controlled through a centralized banking system and a legacy system of reporting, digital assets are by their very nature decentralized. An owner has access through a private key, usually a series of numbers and letters known only to the asset’s owner and stored in a digital wallet. Unless an executor knows about digital wallets and what a private key is and how to use them, the assets can and often do evaporate.

It can be challenging for executors to obtain access to traditional accounts, like 401(k)s or brokerage accounts. Mistakes are made and documents go astray, even in straightforward estates. In a new asset class, with new words like private keys, seed phrases, hardware wallets and more, the likelihood of a catastrophic loss increases.

A last will and testament is necessary for every estate. It’s needed to name an executor, a guardian for minor children and to set forth wishes for wealth distribution. However, a will becomes part of the public record during court proceedings after death, so it should never include detailed information, like bank account numbers. The same goes for information about cryptocurrency. Specific information in a will can be used to steal digital assets.

Loved ones need to know the crypto-assets exist, where to find them and what to do with them. Depending on the amount of the assets and what kind of assets are held, such information needs to be included and addressed in the estate plan.

If the assets are relatively small and owned through an exchange (Coinbase, Biance, or Kraken are a few examples), it is possible to list the crypto asset on a schedule of trust assets and ensure that the trustee has all the login information and knows how to access them.

For complex cases with significant wealth in digital assets, establishing a custodian and trustee may be necessary. A plan must be created that establishes both a custodian and trustee of digital assets. Steps include sharing private keys with a family member or trusted friend or splintering the private keys among multiple trusted individuals, so no one person has complete control.

This new asset class is here for the foreseeable future, and as more investors get involved with cryptocurrency, their estate plan needs to address and protect it.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2021) “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan”

What are Digital Assets in an Estate?

Planning for what would happen to our intangible, digital assets in the event of incapacity or death is now as important as planning for traditional assets, like real property, IRAs, and investment accounts. How to accomplish estate planning for digital assets is explained in the article, aptly named, “Estate planning for your digital assets” from the Baltimore Business Journal.

Digital asset is the term used to describe all electronically stored information and online accounts. Some digital assets have monetary value, like cryptocurrency and accounts with gaming or gambling winnings, and some may be transferrable to heirs. These include bank accounts, domains, event tickets, airline miles, etc.

Ownership issues are part of the confusion about digital assets. Your social media accounts, family photos, emails and even business records, may be on platforms where the content itself is considered to belong to you, but the platform strictly controls access and may not permit anyone but the original owner to gain control.

Until recently, there was little legal guidance in managing a person digital files and accounts in the event of incapacity and death. Accessing accounts, managing contents and understanding the owner, user and licensing agreements have become complex issues.

In 2014, the Uniform Law Commission proposed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) to provide fiduciaries with some clarity and direction. The law, which was revised in 2015 and is now referred to as RUFADAA (Revised UFADAA) was created as a guideline for states and almost every state has adopted these laws, providing estate planning attorneys with the legal guidelines to help create a digital estate plan.

A digital estate plan starts with considering how many digital accounts you actually own—everything from online banking, music files, books, businesses, emails, apps, utility and bill payment programs. What would happen if you were incapacitated? Would a trusted person have the credentials and technical knowledge to access and manage your digital accounts? What would you want them to do with them? In case of your demise, who would you want to have ownership or access to your digital assets?

Once you have created a comprehensive list of all of your assets—digital and otherwise—an estate planning attorney will be able to update your estate planning documents to include your digital assets. You may need only a will, or you may need any of the many planning tools and strategies available, depending upon the type, location and value of your assets.

Not having a digital asset estate plan leaves your estate vulnerable to many problems, including costs. Identity theft against deceased people is rampant, once their death is noted online. The ability to pay bills to keep a household running may take hours of detective work on your surviving spouse’s part. If your executor doesn’t know about accounts with automatic payments, your estate could give up hundreds or thousands in charges without anyone’s knowledge.

There are more complex digital assets, including cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with values from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. The rules on the valuation, sale and transfers of these assets are as yet largely undefined. There are also many reports of people who lose large sums because of a lack of planning for these assets.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your state’s laws concerning digital assets and protect them with an estate plan that includes this new asset class.

Reference: Baltimore Business Journal (Sep. 16, 2021) “Estate planning for your digital assets”

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