A new role has been created in estate planning to serve a new type of asset. The electronic estate trustee is charged with overseeing your digital assets.
Most wills do not include provisions concerning digital assets, as reported in the Financial Post’s article, “What happens to your Bitcoin when you die? Digital assets complicating estate planning process,” because digital assets are still relatively new. After a death, heirs scramble to figure out accounts and passwords, so that they can gain control of the digital assets.
In addition to cryptocurrencies, digital assets can include social media accounts, rewards programs, travel miles, and even gaming profiles. Email accounts can also have massive amounts of information, sentimental history and value. This information and content is worth safeguarding. Making conscious decisions in advance is the best way to ensure that these assets and accounts are passed along in the manner intended.
One potential solution is appointing an “electronic” estate trustee within a will. This person would have the same general duty as the executor or “traditional” estate trustee: executing the wishes of the deceased. However, the role would be much narrower. He or she would be tasked with managing and administering digital assets and accounts. They could be selected based on their trustworthiness and technological savvy.
Just knowing what exists may not be enough. This is because cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, are tracked on a public ledger, and they can only be accessed by a person who has the private password. Individuals need to be sure that the electronic estate trustee gets this. Bitcoin has no central registry, so a forgotten password and backup means a huge loss.
A big part of the electronic estate trustee’s roles would be to navigate the specific rules and regulations of each digital account provider, and each provider’s terms and conditions can seemingly change at will.
For example, Facebook has stated that the handling of pages of people who have died is a growing concern. They now let users appoint a legacy contact who’s provided with limited access to a user’s page after the original user dies. While a legacy contact can write pinned posts and update a user’s profile, that person can’t technically log in to the account, or remove or change past posts.
In the absence of a legacy contact, Facebook will require that the executor or an immediate family member reach out to Facebook. This is an example of where an electronic estate trustee role could be helpful to manage or remove the account.
One helpful note: do not put passwords or user names into a will. Many wills become public documents, and the results could be disastrous.
Reference: Financial Post (January 29, 2018) “What happens to your Bitcoin when you die? Digital assets complicating estate planning process”