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”

Estate Planning and Cryptocurrency

The increase of people investing in digital assets has not been matched by an increase in the number of people preparing to pass on these assets, which can be of considerable value. This new class of assets requires a new kind of estate planning, according to the article “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know” from Forbes.

Cryptocurrency is digital currency used to buy online goods and services and traded in several markets. Cryptocurrency is not issued by any government. Instead, it’s created and managed through blockchain, a technology comprised of decentralized computers used to record and manage transactions. Users claim cryptocurrency is extremely secure. Sometimes, cryptocurrency is so secure that a lost password can cause the owner to lose millions.

The most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and Binance Coin, although there are many others, and it seems like a new cryptocurrency is always being introduced. The total value is estimated at $1.35 trillion.

Another digital asset class gaining in popularity is the NFT, or non-fungible token, used to buy and sell digital art. Each NFT, which is also supported by blockchain technology, can be anything digital, like music or artwork files. The buyer of an NFT owns the exclusive original and the artist, in some cases, retains proprietary rights to feature the artwork or make copies of it. Numerous NFTs have already sold for millions.

Owning digital assets without a plan for passing them along to the next generation, could leave heirs empty handed.

Even if your family knows you own cryptocurrency, and even if they know your passwords or have access to the digital wallet where you keep your passwords, they still may not be able to access your accounts. Probate for digital assets is still very new to the courts, and if you can avoid probate for this asset class, you should.

Blockchain technology, the system behind cryptocurrency and NFTs, requires a private key to access each account, typically in the form of a long passcode. Just as you would not put account numbers into a will, you should never put passcodes or usernames in a last will and testament to prevent them from becoming part of the public record. However, only by understanding how each currency works after the original owner dies and preparing to provide the information to your executor, can your heirs receive these assets.

The nature of cryptocurrency is decentralization. There is no governing body that oversees or regulates cryptocurrency. Laws around cryptocurrency are still evolving, so your estate plan may benefit from a trust to protect digital assets.

Don’t neglect to have the necessary discussion with your heirs, including a knowledge transfer of the step-by-step process they’ll need to know to access your digital assets. An estate planning attorney with experience with digital assets and your state’s laws about digital assets will help protect these assets and ensure they are passed to the next generation without evaporating into cyberspace.

Reference: Forbes (July 21, 2021) “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know”

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”

Can You Have Bitcoin in IRA?

Experts on both sides of the cryptocurrency world agree on one thing: it’s still early to put these kinds of investments into retirement accounts, especially IRAs. A recent article from CNBC, “Want to put bitcoin in your IRA? Why experts say you may want to rethink that, explains why this temptation should be put on pause for a while.

Investors who have remained on the sidelines on cryptocurrency are taking a second look as this new asset class surpassed the $2 trillion mark in late August. Looking at retirement accounts flush with positive growth from stocks, it seems like a good time to take some gains and test the crypto waters.

However, the pros warn against using cryptocurrency in retirement accounts. “Not just yet” is the message from both bulls and bears. One expert says using cryptocurrency in a retirement account is like taking a delicate and exotic animal out of its natural element and putting it in a concrete zoo. Cryptocurrency is not like “regular” money.

The accounts are structured differently The average investor also won’t be able to hold the keys to their own cryptocurrency investment. It’s a buy and hold, with no individual ability to move the assets around. While there are some investment platforms working to change that, an inability to move assets, especially such volatile assets, is not for everyone.

Cryptocurrency is a much riskier investment. A quarterly look at account updates would be like only checking your retirement accounts every five years. Cryptocurrency values are volatile, and an account balance can change dramatically from one week, one day or even one hour to the next one. Crypto is a 24/7/365-day market.

Self-directed IRAs are allowed to have crypto assets, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Another reason: stocks, bonds and real estate have a stated market value, which means they are taxed when withdrawals are taken. However, the expected value of cryptocurrencies is not clear. They are not regulated, while IRAs are among the most highly regulated accounts. This is a big reason as to why most IRA account administrators don’t permit cryptocurrencies in their accounts.

Investment decisions are based on the eventual use of the funds. For IRAs, the intention is not to lose money, and ideally for it to grow, so there is more money for your retirement, not less. Separate margin or trading accounts are typically used for riskier investments.

One expert advised limiting cryptocurrency investments to 5% of your total retirement accounts. If money is lost, it won’t destroy your retirement, and any wins are extra money. Another expert says investing such a small amount won’t be worth the time or effort, so don’t even bother.

For those who are determined to get in the game, a Roth IRA may be preferable if you have an extended time horizon and can stand the ups and downs of cryptocurrency investments. The appreciation in a Roth IRA will be tax-free.

Reference: CNBC (Aug. 17, 2021) “Want to put bitcoin in your IRA? Why experts say you may want to rethink that

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?”

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”