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02-2019 | A Man Dies, and With Him, the Password to His Laptop

A Man Dies, and With Him, the Password to His Laptop (Published 02-2019)

Not normally a big deal.  But in this case, the laptop represented access to $145M in cryptocurrency. Apparently, the password was the only access to this money. Talk about making a bad day even worse!Lost Password | Digital Assets | Digital Estate Planning

According to the news reports, Gerald Cotten, dying unexpectedly at 30 years old, was very concerned about security and used multiple layers of protection to guard his electronic accounts. The downside is that after his death, no one knew how to access those accounts.

His wife, in court filings, indicated that she had searched for passwords to the laptop and came up empty. A security expert hired to try to crack the laptop password had also been unsuccessful.

While most of us do not keep access to $145M in cryptocurrency secured on our laptop, almost all of us have some digital accounts and digital assets. Having a plan in place for those assets can make life easier for your heirs if you become severely disabled or die.

What You Should Do

A good start would be to compile a list of online accounts, together with your user names and passwords.

Then store this list somewhere safe.

Let a trusted loved one or one of your professional advisors (attorney, accountant, financial advisor) know where you have stored the information.

This way, social media accounts and other online accounts can be dealt with.

You might also consider creating an informal plan for your online accounts that you could securely store   with your list of sites and passwords. For instance, you might want your Facebook account deleted. Alternatively, you may want it maintained. We have seen instances of Facebook accounts that are kept open for a short time to collect notes and recollections from family and friends.

You may also have business accounts online that need attention. Websites, EBAY, PayPal and email accounts are examples of accounts that may need a specific plan. You may want to add additional  account owners or administrators.

Law is Behind the Tech

The law in this area is developing, so if you have significant assets online, your best bet will be to speak with your estate planning attorney to develop a plan that is robust enough to deal with these assets.

Let the Gerald Cotten situation be a lesson learned.

Commit to starting with at least an inventory of digital accounts and an informal plan.

If assets are significant, seek advice and develop a more comprehensive plan.

Matthew V. Piwowar is a Grand Rapids estate planning attorney.  Mr. Piwowar is a member of the State Bar of Michigan, and the State Bar Probate & Estate Planning Section, the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys, and the Michigan Forum of Estate Planners.

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