What Assets Should Be Considered when Planning Estate?

The numbers of Americans who have a formal estate plan is still less than 50%. This number hasn’t changed much over the decade., However, the assets owned have become a lot more complicated, according to a recent article from CNBC titled “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked.”

Airline miles and credit card points, social media accounts and cryptocurrencies are different types of assets to be passed on to heirs. For those who have an estate plan, the focus is probably on traditional assets, like their home, 401(k)s, IRAs and bank accounts. However, we own so much more today.

Start with an inventory. For digital assets, include photos, videos, hardware, software, devices, and websites, to name a few. Make sure someone you trust has the unlock code for your phone, laptop and desktop. Use a secure password manager or a notebook, whatever you are more comfortable with, and share the information with a trusted person.

You’ll also need to include what you want to happen to the digital asset. Some platforms will let owners name a legacy contact to handle the account when they die and what the owner wants to happen to the data, photos, videos, etc. Some platforms have not yet addressed this issue at all.

If an online business generates income, what do you want to happen to the business? If you want the business to continue, who will own the business, who will run the business and receive the income? All of this has to be made clear and documented properly.

Failing to create a digital asset plan puts those assets at risk. For cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens (NFTs), this has become a routine problem. Unlike traditional financial accounts, there are no paper statements, and your executor can’t simply contact the institution with a death certificate and a Power of Attorney and move funds.

Another often overlooked part of an estate are pets. Assets cannot be left directly to pets. However, most states allow pet trusts, where owners can fund a trust and designate a trustee and a caretaker. Make sure to fund the account once it has been created, so your beloved companion will be cared for as you want. An informal agreement is not enforceable, and your pet may end up in a shelter or abandoned.

Sentimental possessions also need to be planned for. Your great-grandmother’s soup tureen may be available for $20 on eBay, but it’s not the same as the one she actually used and taught her daughter and her granddaughter how to use. The same goes for more valuable items, like jewelry or artwork. Identifying who gets what while you are living, can help prevent family quarrels when you are gone. In some families, there will be quarrels unless the items are in the will. Another option: distribute these items while you are living.

If you can, it’s also a good idea and a gift to your loved ones to write down what you want in the way of a funeral or memorial service. Do they want to be buried, or cremated? Do they want a religious service in a house of worship, or a simple graveside service?

If you are among those who have a will, you probably need it to be reviewed. If you don’t have a will or a comprehensive estate plan, you should meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to address distribution of assets, planning for incapacity and preparing for the often overlooked aspects of your life. You’ll have the comfort of expressing your wishes and your loved ones will be grateful.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 18, 2022) “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked”

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”

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?”