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?”

Sharing Legal Documents and Passwords

While parents are alive and well is the time to prepare for the future, when they begin to decline. An adult child who is a primary agent and also executor has questions about organizing documents and managing storage in a digital format, as well as how to secure their passwords for online websites. The advice from the article “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents” from my San Antonio is that these two issues are evolving and the best answers today may be different as time passes.

Safe and shareable password storage is a part of today’s online life. However, passwords used to access bank and investment accounts, file storage platforms, emails, online retailers and thousands of other tools used on a desktop are increasingly required to be strong and complex and are difficult to remember. In some cases, facial recognition is used instead of a password.

Many rely on their internet browsers, like Chrome, Safari, etc., to remember passwords. This leaves accounts vulnerable, as many of these and other browsers have been hacked.

The best password solutions are stand-alone password managers. They offer the option of sharing the passwords with others, so parents would provide their executor with access to their list. However, there are also new laws regarding digital assets, so check with your estate planning attorney. You may need to create directives for your accounts that specify who you want to have access to the accounts and the data that they contain.

Storage of legal documents is a separate concern from password-sharing. Shared legal documents need to be private, reasonably priced and secure.

Some password managers include document storage as part of the account. The documents can be uploaded in an encrypted format that can be accessed by a person, who is assigned by the account owner.

Document vault websites are also available. You will have to be extremely careful about selecting which one to use. Some of the websites resell data, which is not why you are storing documents with them. One company claims to offer a “universal advance digital directive,” which they say can provide digital access worldwide to documents, including an emergency, critical and advance care plan.

The problem? This company is located in a state that does not permit the creation of a legally binding advance directive, unless it is in writing, includes state-specific provisions and is signed in front of either two qualified witnesses or a notary.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about securing estate planning documents and how to protect digital assets. Their knowledge of the laws in your state will provide the family with the proper protection now and in the future.

Reference: my San Antonio (October 14, 2019) “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents”