Cryptocurrencies have a more prominent role in estate planning than they did a decade ago. Since Bitcoin was introduced 12 years ago, cryptocurrencies have steadily grown in acceptance. A recent survey showed that 10% of people in the United States now own some form of cryptocurrency. Additionally, a 2020 online survey by the Cremation Institute revealed that only 23% of 1,150 cryptocurrency owners who responded reported having a documented plan for passing on their crypto-assets in case of their death. Despite the lack of planning, 89% of those survey respondents worry about whether their crypto assets will be passed on to their loved ones. Unfortunately, many cryptocurrency holders don’t realize that their crypto-assets should be documented in their estate plan.

What Is Cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is a digital currency in which transactions are verified and records are maintained by a decentralized system using cryptography, also known as blockchain technology, rather than by a centralized authority (i.e., a sovereign government). There are thousands of types of cryptocurrencies, the most common being Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Chainlink, and Dogecoin, to name a few. Increasingly, these digital currencies can be used to make purchases. Elon Musk recently announced that Tesla may start accepting Bitcoin as payment for the purchase of vehicles. PayPal now allows users to buy and hold cryptocurrency in their digital wallets. And, BNY Mellon announced that it will hold, transfer and issue bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on behalf of its asset management clients. The BNY Mellon announcement eased the concerns many wealth managers had over the regulatory, legal and stability risks of directly managing cryptocurrencies.

Since its inception, Bitcoin has seen a dramatic increase in value and in the last year alone, Bitcoins’ gains were stratospheric increasing by 440% (one Bitcoin worth $5,413 in March 2020 was worth $48,634 by March 2021). Based on this appreciation and a mainstream adoption in the markets, it’s clear why Fortune 500 companies and individuals are eager to invest in cryptocurrencies. Advisors need to inform their clients about the consequences of any crypto transactions, including how to incorporate their crypto-assets into their estate planning.

Learn From The Mistakes Of Others
When German-born programmer Stefan Thomas recently made headlines after a lost Bitcoin password rendered $220 million worth of his Bitcoin inaccessible, there was a universal gasp of dismay from people around the world. This mishap served as an important wake-up call to cryptocurrency holders, reinforcing the need to develop a plan to protect and pass on their digital assets. Without a password, cryptocurrencies are inaccessible because there is no system for password recovery. The digital “currency” is created through an algorithm and does not save a person’s password or “key”. With national attention on Stefan’s costly error, more clients are seeking expert guidance from wealth advisors on how to best account for crypto-assets.

Document All Crypto-Investments
Unlike traditional investments, there are no traditional ownership or beneficiary designations on cryptocurrency accounts. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are entirely anonymous, so if the holder dies without communicating that s/he owns a cryptocurrency and does not provide the corresponding password or “private key,” the asset dies with them. Ownership is established by “blockchain” records and transactions, akin to the registry of deeds tracking deed transfers. Imagine you lost the deed to your house, and the registry of deeds did not exist (decentralized)—you would not be able to sell the house or prove your interest in it. The only way to access Bitcoin is with the password or “private key.” Without the private key, you have no access, and without access, you have no Bitcoin, and all the value is lost.

Given the significant increase in cryptocurrency values, advisors should help clients document what they own, where the passwords are stored, and what the purchase price was for each cryptocurrency. Advisors should also ascertain how the client wants these assets to be handled in their estate plan. It is important to understand how to manage cryptocurrency assets and maintain the security of passwords, while being mindful of the IRS tax treatment of virtual currency transactions.

Cryptocurrencies can be purchased on exchanges such as Coinbase and held there. Exchanges like Coinbase provide easy access to the owner but are not as secure as “wallets.” Outside of exchanges, there are two main ways to store cryptocurrencies—in “cold” or “hot” wallets. Cold wallet storage refers to offline storage devices such as a USB drive, computer, phone or tablet that are not connected to the internet. Hot wallets are online or desktop apps that allow you to store keys and passwords to access cryptocurrencies. There is significant literature that outlines the pros and cons of each option, and ultimately clients need to decide what they are most comfortable with and document their choice.

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