Estate Planning Blog Articles

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How to Handle Digital Assets in a Will

Now that cryptocurrency has become almost commonplace, it is necessary to incorporate it into estate plans and their administration, according to the article “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency” from Roll Call.

One advantage of using cryptocurrencies in estate planning is the ease of transference—if all parties know how crypto works. Unlike a traditional bank, which typically requires executors to produce an original death certificate and other documents to take control of accounts in the estate, cryptocurrency only requires the fiduciary to have passcodes to gain access to accounts.

The passcode is a complex, multicharacter code appearing to be a long string of unrelated numbers and letters. It is stored in a digital wallet, which can only be accessed through the use of the 64-digit passcode, also known as a key.

While the passcode is simple, it is also very vulnerable. If the key is lost, there is no way to retrieve it. The executor must know not just where the key is physically located if it has been written down on paper, or if it is kept in a digital wallet, but how to access the digital wallet. There are also different kinds of digital wallets.

People do not usually share their passwords with others. However, in the case of crypto, consider storing it in a safe but accessible location and telling a trusted person where it may be found.

People who own cryptocurrency need to give someone access info. If someone is named an executor at one point in your life and they have the information about digital assets, then at some point you change the executor, there is no way to guarantee the former executor might not access the account.

How do you protect digital assets? Using “cold storage,” an account passcode is stored and concealed on a USB drive or similar device, allowing the information to be shared without the user needing to learn the passcode to access the account. The cold storage USB drive can be given from one fiduciary to the successor fiduciary without either knowing the passcode.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress addressing cryptocurrency and blockchain policies. The IRS has issued a number of notices and publications regarding taxes on digital currency transactions. Crypto is no longer an “invisible” asset.

In addition to policies and regulations, litigation concerning estates and cryptocurrency is still relatively new to the judiciary. Planning for these assets to ensure they are passed to the next generation securely is very important as their use and value continues to grow.

Reference: Roll Call (Feb. 22, 2022) “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency”

Storing Passwords in Case of Death

Despite having the resources to hire IT forensic experts to help access accounts, including her husband’s IRA, it’s been three years and Deborah Placet still hasn’t been able to gain access to her husband’s Bitcoin account. Placet and her late husband were financial planners and should have known better. However, they didn’t have a digital estate plan. Her situation, according to the Barron’s article “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” offers cautionary tale.

Our digital footprint keeps expanding. As a result, there’s no paper trail to follow when a loved one dies. In the past, an executor or estate administrator could simply have mail forwarded and figure out accounts, assets and values. Not only don’t we have a paper trail, but digital accounts are protected by passwords, multifactor authentication processes, fingerprints, facial recognition systems and federal data privacy laws.

The starting point is to create a list of digital accounts. Instructions on how to gain access to the accounts must be very specific, because a password alone may not be enough information. Explain what you want to happen to the account: should ownership be transferred to someone else, who has permission to retrieve and save the data and whether you want the account to be shut down and no data saved, etc.

The account list should include:

  • Social media platforms
  • Traditional bank, retirement and investment accounts
  • PayPal, Venmo and similar payment accounts
  • Cryptocurrency wallets, nonfungible token (NFT) assets
  • Home and utilities accounts, like mortgage, electric, gas, cable, internet
  • Insurance, including home, auto, flood, health, life, disability, long-term care.
  • Smart phone accounts
  • Online storage accounts
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • Subscription services
  • Loyalty/rewards programs
  • Gaming accounts

Some accounts may be accessed by using a username and password. However, others are more secure and require biometric protection. This information should all be included in a document, but the document should not be included in the Last Will, since the Last Will becomes public information through probate and is accessible to anyone who wants to see it.

Certain platforms have created a process to allow heirs to access assets. Typically, death certificates, a Last Will or probate documents, a valid photo ID of the deceased and a letter signed by those named in the probate records outlining what is to be done with assets are required. However, not every platform has addressed this issue.

Compiling a list of digital assets is about as much fun as preparing for tax season. However, without a plan, digital assets are likely to be lost. Identity theft and fraud occurs when assets are unprotected and unused.

Just as a traditional estate plan protects heirs to avoid further stress and expense, a digital estate plan helps to protect the family and loved ones. Speak with your estate planning attorney as you are working on your estate plan to create a digital estate plan.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

What are Digital Assets in a Will?

Most of us overlook the amount of information and assets we have online, from social media to networking websites, frequent flier miles, online bank accounts, subscriptions, photos, websites, etc. The list of most people’s digital assets has grown considerably in recent years, and yet most have no plan for what should happen to those assets when their owner dies.

This is a growing problem, says msn money, in an article making the case clear: “From Facebook to iTunes to Amazon, You Need A Digital Will!” Every website has its own legal requirements for dealing with the original owner’s death, almost aways hidden deep within the Terms of Service Agreement we all click on without reading. Some have created processes for executors, while others have not. What can you do to make it easier for your executor?

Make a list of everything you access online. Be prepared to be surprised at just how much your life occurs online. Compile a list of all online accounts, usernames and passwords. You probably have to do this bit by bit, as a marathon session might take a long time. Use either a password manager with top-notch security or a password-protected spreadsheet you update around once every three months.

This is especially important for accounts with monetary value. But sentimental value counts too. A side note: all those playlists you’ve created on iTunes? They are non-transferrable and when you die, they are deleted.

What do you want to have happen to each account? You’ll need to decide what you want to happen to each account and, depending on the account, state it clearly in what’s known as a directive. You may want to preserve some, or you may want to shut down others. Some free email accounts are automatically shut down, if they are not used for a certain period of time. Others should be down immediately to prevent fraud. Scammers prefer accounts where the owners have died, since they are often an easy entry to the person’s online identity.

Facebook is one of the platforms allowing you to designate a Legacy contact, so the person can memorialize the account, allowing only friends to see the page and removing some information. If you want to have the page deleted on death, Facebook provides directions.

Each platform has its own rules. Most rely on provisions regarding privacy protection: only the original owner is authorized to access the account. There are now federal and state laws prohibiting accessing private online data, which have created significant obstacles for loved ones to access digital assets. Don’t expect anyone to resolve your digital accounts after you pass, unless you have a digital will. Even with one, there might be issues.

Your estate planning attorney will help you add the correct language to your estate documents as to what you want to happen to each account. It’s important to ensure that your estate plan gives your executor or other fiduciary authorization to access your digital assets and what you want to happen to them. Remember—don’t put account names, usernames, or passwords in a will, as it becomes a public document during the probate process.

Without an inventory of digital assets, it may be simply impossible to ascertain where digital assets are located and how to access them. Looking at credit card statements for autopayments may be a place to start, or at least to stop the autopayments.

This is a relatively new asset class, with laws varying from state to state. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure your digital assets are protected, as well as traditional assets when creating or reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: msn money (Dec. 19, 2021) “From Facebook to iTunes to Amazon, You Need A Digital Will!”

Can Cryptocurrency Be Inherited?

Cryptocurrency accounts are not like any traditional investment accounts. However, their growing prevalence and value means they need to be considered for more and more estate plans, especially when they take an enormous leap in value. These accounts are more vulnerable, according to the recent article “Millennial Money: What happens to your crypto if you die?” from The Indiana Gazette, and in most cases, there’s no way to name a beneficiary for your crypto accounts.

If you store your cryptocurrency on a physical device at home and a few friends know your key—the crypto password that grants access to a crypto wallet—one of those friends could very easily wander into your home and steal your crypto without you even noticing.

On the flip side, if you don’t share your key with anyone and become incapacitated or die, your crypto assets could be lost forever. Knowing how to store these assets safely and communicate your wishes for loved ones is extremely important, more so than for traditional assets.

How is crypto stored? Crypto “wallets” are digital wallets, managed on an app or a website, or kept on a thumb drive (also known as a memory stick). How you store crypto depends in part on how you intend to use it.

A “Hot Wallet” is used to buy and sell crypto. They are usually free and convenient but may not be as secure as other methods because they are always connected to the internet.

“Cold Wallets” are used to store crypto for a longer period of time, like a deep freezer.

The Hot Wallet is more like a checking account, with money moving in and out. The Cold Wallet is like a savings account, where money is kept for a longer period of time. You can have both, just as you probably have both a checking and savings account.

Whoever holds the “keys” to the wallets—whoever has custody of the password, which is a series of randomly generated numbers and letters—has access to your cryptocurrency. It might be just you, a third-party crypto exchange, or a hybrid of the two. Consider the third-party exchange a temporary and risky solution, as you don’t have control of the keys and exchanges do get hacked.

Naming a beneficiary in your will and adding a document to your estate plan containing an inventory of cryptocurrency and any passwords, PINs, keys and instructions to find your cold wallet is part of an estate plan addressing this new digital asset class.

Do not under any circumstances include any of the crypto information in your will. This document becomes part of the public record when filed in court and giving this information is the same as sharing your checking, saving and investment account information with the general public.

Some platforms, like Coinbase, have a process in place for next of kin, when an owner dies. Others do not, so it’s up to the crypto owner to make plans, if they want assets to be preserved and passed to another family member.

Preparing for cryptocurrency is much the same as preparing for the rest of your estate plan. Keep the plan updated, especially after big life events, like marriage, divorce, birth, or death. Keep instructions up to date, so the executor and beneficiaries know what to do. Bear in mind that crypto wallets need occasional updates, like every other kind of digital platform.

Reference: The Indiana Gazette (Nov. 7, 2021) “Millennial Money: What happens to your crypto if you die?”

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”

digital asset law

Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania, Joining Most States

More and more of our lives are lived online. However, what happens when we become disabled or die and our executor or a fiduciary needs to access these accounts? Pennsylvania recently joined many states that have passed a law intended to make accessing these accounts easier, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

The official name of the law is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Pennsylvania is one of the last states in the nation—48th—to adopt this type of legislation, with the passage of Act 72 of 2020. Until now, the Keystone state didn’t allow concrete authority to access digital information to fiduciaries. The problem: the ability to access the information is still subject to the agreement that the user has with the online provider. That’s the “yes” we give automatically, when presented with terms of service agreement every time we open a new app on our phones.

Online service providers give deference to “legacy” contacts that a user can name, if authority to a third party to access their accounts is given. However, most people don’t name a successor to have access, and most apps don’t have a way to do this.

It’s worse than dying without a will. If you die with no will, the state has a process to identify legal heirs and distribute your estate. However, with digital assets, first you have to locate the person’s digital assets (and chances are good you’ll miss a few). There’s no shoebox of old receipts, or letters and bills coming in the mail to identify digital property. The custodians of the online information (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, etc.) still rely on those contracts between the user and the digital platform.

However, with the adoption of the new law, if the user does not make use of the online tool to name a successor, or if one is not offered, then the user can dictate the terms of access or non-access to the online accounts through estate planning documents, including a will, trust or power of attorney.

Here are some tips to clarify your wishes to disclose (or not) digital assets:

Make a list of all your online accounts, their URL address, usernames and passwords. Share the list only with someone you trust. You will be surprised at just how many you have.

Review the terms of service for each account to see if you have the ability to provide a name for a person who is authorized to access the account on your behalf.

Make sure your estate planning documents are aligned with your service contract preferences. Does your Power of Attorney mention access to your digital accounts? Depending on the potential value, sentimental and otherwise, of your digital assets, you may need to revise your estate plan.

Remember to never put anything in your will, like account numbers, URLs, usernames or passwords, since your will becomes a public document once it is probated. Your estate planning attorney will know how to best accomplish documenting your digital assets, while protecting them.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 24, 2020) “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

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