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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.

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

cryptocurrency in estate planning

How Do I Incorporate Cryptocurrency into My Estate Planning?

Planning for cryptocurrency has been neglected. It means that, in some cases, the cryptocurrency has been lost. There have been people who tossed their computer hard drives with thousands of bitcoins (now worth millions). They then spend days sifting through tons of garbage. To save your family from this trouble and embarrassment after you die, add your cryptocurrency into your estate plan to preserve the benefits and avoid the risks of cryptocurrency.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning When You Own Cryptocurrency” says, first, you must preserve the benefits of your cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency is highly secure. However, that security is in danger, if the private key is carelessly recorded or discarded. With the private key, anyone can access the cryptocurrency. As a result, your planning and procedures must address how to secure this information. Just like cash, cryptocurrency isn’t traceable. In fact, there’s no electronic or paper trail connecting the parties in a transaction involving cryptocurrency. Therefore, in order to preserve that privacy, you’ll need to plan so the other documentation in the transaction doesn’t reveal these identities, or at least keep that information privileged. Remember that transferring cryptocurrency takes only seconds.

Because cryptocurrency, like precious metals and other commodities, can fluctuate wildly in value even during the course of a day, it must be treated like stock in a private company and other assets that are volatile in nature. Cryptocurrency also isn’t subject to government regulation, so no government is responsible for losses from fraud, theft or other malfeasance.

Trusts and other planning devices have a tough time with cryptocurrency, especially if the Prudent Investor Rule applies. Without specific language, the trust won’t be capable of holding cryptocurrency. If that language is written too broadly, the trustee may be exempt from damages due to willful neglect.

Cryptocurrency is also taxed as property not as currency by the IRS, which means that the fair market value is set by conversion into U.S. dollars at “a reasonable exchange rate” and transactions involving cryptocurrency are subject to the capital gains tax regulations. As a result, you must have specific tax provisions in trusts, partnerships, LLCs, and other entities. Therefore, if you, or your business, own bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency, your estate, business succession, and financial plans need to address it specifically. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (August 4, 2020) “Estate Planning When You Own Cryptocurrency”

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