Coinbase co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong recently blogged about the future of cryptocurrency, predicting that it will reach 1 billion users by the year 2030 (up from about 50 million at the start of this decade). With the anticipated increased uptake of cryptocurrency, we can expect that more and more people will hold these types of digital assets on their death. The question then arises: how should cryptocurrencies be dealt with in one’s estate plan?
By way of background, cryptocurrency is virtual currency that uses cryptography to verify financial transactions and control production of currency units in a decentralized, peer-to-peer exchange network. Cryptocurrency runs on Blockchain technology, which allows for blocks of information about transactions to be recorded and stored on a distributed ledger. When a transaction takes place, a block is added to the blockchain and there is a corresponding change in balance in the buyer and seller’s cryptocurrency wallets.
A cryptocurrency wallet or “crypto wallet” contains a person’s public and private keys – the former is used to receive cryptocurrency and the latter is used to spend/send cryptocurrencies to other wallet addresses. The crypto wallet is the only means of accessing one’s digital currency. There are different types of wallets that can be used to store and access digital currency, such as online accounts, mobile apps, external hard drives, or simply paper.
Because cryptocurrency is an intangible asset with little to no paper trail, special estate planning considerations should be made to ensure that the value of these digital assets is not lost on death and can be distributed to the intended beneficiaries.
First, the cryptocurrency owned by a person should be expressly referred to in their will to ensure that their executor is aware that these digital assets exist. A testator should then provide sufficient detail for their executor to be able to locate and access the testator’s crypto wallet. Specifically, the testator should describe what type of crypto wallet they have, where it is stored, and provide any other information that may be needed to access the crypto wallet. Instead of listing this sensitive information in the will itself, which becomes part of the public record through the probate process, a testator should include it in a memorandum to their will.
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The popularity of cryptocurrencies has heightened the world’s attention on the versatility of blockchain technology. An interesting development is the application of a blockchain solution for estate planning of crypto assets.
Generally speaking, a blockchain is a shared, real-time ledger of any type of information that can be recorded ranging from financial transactions to ownership of real property. Blockchain technology allows for blocks of information to be stored in a chain on a distributed peer-to-peer network.
The traditional method of estate planning, as we know it, involves hiring a lawyer to prepare a will, which appoints the executor(s) and lists the beneficiaries. When the testator passes away it is the responsibility of the executor to administer the estate in accordance with the will. This traditional method has created uncertainty for testators who own Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency and intend for their beneficiaries to receive them.
It is estimated that millions of Bitcoins have been lost as a result of testators not adequately factoring this type of asset into their estate plan. For testators that have considered their crypto assets, concerns still remain as to whether the executor has the technological ability to access and distribute a cryptocurrency holding.
One possible way for the testator to address this uncertainty is to author a plan with detailed instructions and provide the private key to the executor(s).
A start-up company in the United States has fostered a novel approach to this issue. The company’s product offering uses a blockchain-registered will also known as a “crypto-will” to enable digital assets to be transferred automatically. The idea behind the product is that once a testator’s death record appears in the Death Master File, a computer database of death records made available by the United States Social Security Office, the crypto-will is then activated and executes the wishes of the testator. This potential solution eliminates the need for an executor to administer this portion of an individual’s estate.
As the crypto-will is still very much in the development stage, many questions still remain. It will be interesting to discover how the concept of a crypto-will evolves in the near future.
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Ian M. Hull
Cryptocurrency is aptly described in a recent post as “digital cash stored on an electronic file and traded online… like online banking but with no central bank or regulator. It also has virtual wallets which store the cryptocurrency.”
As with any online assets, access to a deceased person’s cryptocurrency is vital. Without it, heirs will not receive their intended entitlements and the cryptocurrency will remain dormant. A stark example of such a problem can be found in the QuadrigaCX debacle.
QuadrigaCX is Canada’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange. Its’ founder, Gerald Cotton, died unexpectedly and prematurely at age 30. He was the only one who knew the password to access the holdings of the company’s clients. Once news of his death got out, thousands of clients were rushing to withdraw millions in funds. They have not yet been successful, the reason being, as one author explains, is that “…Cotten was the sole person responsible for transferring QuadrigaCX funds between the company’s “cold wallet” — secure, offline storage — and its “hot wallet” or online server…Very little cryptocurrency was stored in the hot wallet for security purposes. Cotten’s laptop was encrypted, and his widow, Jennifer Robertson, and the expert she hired have been unable to access any of its contents.”
QuadrigaCX is evidently now in financial straits. It has filed for creditor protection in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Further, Ms. Robertson has reportedly sought the appointment of Ernst & Young to oversee the company’s dealings while attempts to recover the lost holdings continue.
This unfortunate situation highlights the risk that may accompany cryptocurrency’s lack of regulation. It also serves as a reminder to us that with ownership of digital assets growing, we need to think about how to ensure that gifting such assets is effected, including making sure to inform our intended estate trustees of how to access the assets. Doing so is helpful because, as the above case demonstrates, it is a must in the case of cryptocurrencies to have the password relevant to the wallet where the currency is held. Further, with an asset as volatile as cryptocurrency can be, a fully informed estate trustee will be in a better position to avoid delays in the administration of an estate and/or allegations of mismanagement if he/she is able to quickly access and distribute such assets.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,