Death and Bitcoin: How Digital Currencies Affect Estate Planning

It may not be at the forefront of your digital currency interests, but cryptocurrencies have unique characteristics that require careful consideration for estate planning.

If you have bitcoin, for example, but your beneficiaries do not know about it when you die, they likely never will. Bitcoin transactions are anonymous. And loved ones cannot visit a bitcoin operator like they might visit a bank to see about your assets. The bitcoin will continue to exist, but no one will be able to access it. If a bitcoin owner wants someone to inherit their bitcoin, they can arrange for their beneficiaries or executor to have access to their bitcoin wallet and private key after they die. Bitcoin owners can make copies of their bitcoin wallet for loved ones (the least secure method), or they can use services like to securely share information after death. Assuming the bitcoin is accessible, it will be included in the owner’s estate and governed by the owner’s will or revocable trust at death. (Or, if the owner did not have a will or trust, it will past by intestacy.) Along similar lines, bitcoin owners may also consider having their power of attorney include a provision giving their appointed agent access to their bitcoin, in case it needs looking after while the owner is incapacitated.

For purposes of estate planning, bitcoin owners also should be aware of how bitcoin is treated by the Internal Revenue Service. Last year, the IRS defined digital currencies to be “property” for tax purposes, not currency. See IRS Notice 2014-21. This means that when an individual inherits bitcoin, the taxable gain (or loss) when they sell the bitcoin will be measured based on the fair market value of the bitcoin when inherited (at the time of death). This is great for bitcoin that has appreciated, as the beneficiaries will only be taxed on gains post-death. Any increase in value since the owner bought the bitcoin up until it was passed to the beneficiaries escapes taxation forever. The flip side to treating bitcoin like property is unfortunate for bitcoin that has depreciated. Regardless of how much the value of bitcoin has decreased since the owner purchased it, if the bitcoin’s value goes up even a little after it is inherited, there is a taxable gain.

These are just a few things for bitcoin owners to keep in mind. As with any new technology, bitcoin poses new legal questions throughout a variety a legal landscapes, and estate planning is one of those areas that warrants thoughtful consideration.