What Happens to Your Bitcoin When You Die?

Sofia, Bulgaria - April 24, 2014: Studio shot of  bitcoin in a row on black background .
filadendron / Getty Images

Common wealth-building assets include tangible items such as cash, property, jewelry and art. In addition to stocks and bonds, people are increasingly adding digital assets to their investment portfolios. These assets are usually in the form of cryptocurrency.

Nearly everyone is familiar with bequeathing physical assets, but the process of transferring cryptocurrency after you die might not be as popular. Results from an Angus Reid study in Canada revealed that only one in four people has shared all of their account and password information with another person.

Some of the leaders in the crypto world have advised investors to ensure that their Bitcoin fortune remains in the family and doesn’t disappear. They claim that the smartest way to do this is to share your private crypto keys with a trusted family member or friend.

If your account and password details remain a secret, then what happens to your digital assets when you die? Does your will include instructions for Bitcoin inheritance? Read on to learn what happens to your Bitcoin and other crypto assets posthumously.

Building Wealth

Accessing Bitcoin While You’re Alive

No one owns or controls Bitcoin, and everyone can access it. Open-sourced to the public, Bitcoin uses peer-to-peer technology and operates under no central authority or bank. Investors buy and manage Bitcoin assets over a secure network.

Bitcoin investors can make secure electronic transactions easily with their Bitcoin wallet app. Users have control over their assets and protection against fraud. The only way to access virtual currency is with a private key, which is usually a 64-digit passcode.

It’s estimated that tens of billions in unclaimed assets are lost after someone dies, either because no one else is aware of the accounts or because nobody has the credentials to access them. After you die, will your beneficiaries have access to your cryptocurrency private key to inherit your Bitcoin?

Provide Your Loved Ones Access to Your Bitcoin

Since cryptocurrency is decentralized, survivors can’t just call a bank and find out if their deceased relative had a cryptocurrency account.

Follow these steps to make sure that your digital assets are protected while you’re living and that after you die, your loved ones can access them.

Step-By-Step Guide

  1. Use a password manager to store all of your financial accounts information, including usernames, passwords and private keys to your digital assets. Share your master password with someone you trust and store it with your will.
  2. Use a digital wallet (web-based or hardware) or digital exchange to store and manage your Bitcoin and other crypto assets. You can give your family access to your wallet, or the exchange may have a death-management process.
  3. Create and maintain a list of your financial assets and give access to your executor or a trusted family member or friend. Remember to review and update your list annually or whenever you acquire new digital assets.
  4. Create a will instructing how you want your crypto assets to be distributed.

Building Wealth

What Can Surviving Family Members Do?

Coinbase is a secure platform where cryptocurrency investors buy, sell and store digital assets like Bitcoin and Ethereum. When someone with a Coinbase account dies, their family members can follow a process to access the deceased’s account; and ultimately their Bitcoin, if they’re invested.

If you inherit Bitcoin from a deceased person’s Coinbase account, contact Coinbase customer service to notify them of the death and to get help accessing the person’s crypto account. The process is simple.

How To Gain Access

  1. Complete the Coinbase customer service form.
  2. Select the type of Coinbase account — Coinbase or CoinbasePro.
  3. Under “Let’s get started,” select Other Issues.
  4. Under “What is your issue about?”, select I’m requesting access for a deceased account holder.
  5. Under “What seems to be the problem?”, select General.
  6. Follow the remaining prompts to reach Coinbase Customer Support.

Be sure to have the following information on hand when contacting Coinbase to access a deceased person’s cryptocurrency account:

  • Death certificate
  • Will and/or probate documents, which can include:
    • Small estate affidavit
    • Collection affidavit
    • Administration letter
    • Testamentary letter
    • Probate letter
  • A current, valid government-issued photo ID
  • A signed letter by the named probate official instructing Coinbase on what to do with the balance of the crypto account

Be aware that Coinbase’s death-management process is directed through estate planning attorney services and not through Coinbase itself.

Taxes and Cryptocurrency After Death

The Internal Revenue Service is still trying to understand cryptocurrency. Crypto is currently considered capital property, and not a monetary asset. You incur capital gains and losses when you transfer cryptocurrency, but you don’t accrue interest.

After a cryptocurrency owner dies, the red tape involved with transferring digital assets is minimal. Beneficiaries need to produce a death certificate as is required at a bank to retrieve a deceased person’s cash. You also need the owner’s digital wallet passcode to transfer the crypto account into estate administration.

If you don’t leave your Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies to someone before you die, then the coins will be disposed of at the time of your death. The disposition of your Bitcoin will be a taxable event for your estate and could result in a hefty capital gain.

You can avoid this unfortunate event by assigning your loved ones as Bitcoin beneficiaries.

Keep in Mind

Although using a password manager to store all of your financial accounts’ information and sharing the master password with your executor may be wise, it might cause problems after you die.

Password sharing is prohibited on some financial-related apps and websites. Some of the sites might require two-factor authentication, which is often difficult to confirm if you are not a device’s owner.

Some digital asset succession management solutions work with estates and content providers to help manage the transfer of digital assets after death.

Generational wealth transfer is becoming more prevalent as investing in Bitcoin becomes more popular. Crypto exchanges are improving their death-management processes to include notification of digital assets before death, instructions on how to access Bitcoin after someone dies and valuable information about Bitcoin inheritance.

GOBankingRates’ Crypto Guides

Our in-house research team and on-site financial experts work together to create content that’s accurate, impartial, and up to date. We fact-check every single statistic, quote and fact using trusted primary resources to make sure the information we provide is correct. You can learn more about GOBankingRates’ processes and standards in our editorial policy.

About the Author

Kathy Evans is a personal finance freelance writer and entrepreneur with a technical writing and instructional systems design background. She holds an MS in technical writing and informational design and is currently a doctoral student in instructional technology at Towson University. Through work experience in the federal government as well as commercial and nonprofit industries, she has focused her freelance writing on finance, investing and economic content with a specialization in budget coaching.  

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