While success in crypto-currency investing is far from assured, death, sadly, is.  Accordingly, it is vital that investors in Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are prepared for the unique estate planning factors that apply to digital assets.  The following are five estate planning factors that should be addressed immediately by crypto-currency investors to ensure that their digital assets are effectively passed on to their heirs or beneficiaries.

  1. Custody of Private Keys and Other Information to Access Digital Assets

Unlike bank accounts which can be accessed post-mortem, digital assets typically require a variety of private information to be accessed.  This information (and an investor’s digital assets) may be lost forever if an investor fails to record it or share it with a trusted third party before they die.  To avoid this, it is crucial that investors physically record the following private access information and provide for custody of this information in their will:

  • Private Key: Most crypto-currencies use a public-private key system to ensure that transactions are valid.  While the public key is made public every time the investor buys or sells crypto-currency, only the investor knows the private key.  Private keys are essential to verify ownership and access digital assets, and should be recorded.  Gaining access to a private key is similar to gaining ownership of a bank account, so it is vital that private keys are kept safe.  Creating a physical copy of your private key and securing it in a bank safety deposit box insulates your private key from hacking and may provide the safest means to protect it.
  • Passwords: Crypto-currencies are traded on online platforms commonly known as exchanges.  Investors that fail to secure their digital assets in hardware wallets (see below) typically have their crypto-currencies stored on default digital wallets provided by an exchange.  It is important that the username, password, and security question information for exchanges be recorded to retrieve digital assets from exchange wallets.
  • Two-Factor Authentication: Many crypto-currency exchanges also require that investors use two-factor authentication to authenticate their identity when accessing their account and transferring digital assets.  Two-factor authentication is typically accomplished via a mobile application that provides a unique code to be entered into the exchange.  Investors who use two-factor authentication should record their username, password, and security question information.
  1. Custody of Hardware Wallets

Once Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are purchased on an exchange, they are automatically stored on that exchange’s default wallet where they can be accessed electronically by the investor.  Digital wallets, especially those used by exchanges, are susceptible to hacking. Investors should transfer their digital assets to a hardware wallet.  Hardware wallets can be purchased online and are, generally, encrypted flash drives that require a password to be accessed.  Investors and their heirs may lose their digital assets if their hardware wallet is lost or damaged.  Investors should record the password and other access information for their hardware wallets, and provide for custody of the information and the wallet itself in their will.

  1. New Jersey Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

In 2017, New Jersey enacted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “Act”).  The Act generally enables individuals to appoint a fiduciary to manage their “digital assets”, broadly defined as electronic records.  Under the Act, electronic records include account information for online exchanges.  Unfortunately, while the Act authorizes a fiduciary to access a deceased investor’s exchange account, it fails to consider that the private key – the essential information to remove digital assets from a digital wallet – is not available to exchanges.  Moreover, the Act’s limited applicability to electronic records may exclude its applicability to hardware wallets.

  1. Fiduciaries under Power of Attorney and Will

Under a well drafted Power of Attorney, an agent, appointed by the principal, is given the power to manage the principal’s assets and make investment decisions on behalf of the principal.  Depending on how the document is drafted, the powers granted under the Power of Attorney can either be effective immediately upon execution or only effective upon the disability or incapacity of the principal.  Having such a document avoids the necessity of asking the court to appoint someone as the principal’s guardian if he or she cannot manage his or her own affairs.

Among other things, the executor of an estate is tasked with distributing the property of the decedent in accordance with the decedent’s will.

In the context of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, it may be necessary for the agent under a Power of Attorney or the executor of an estate to have control over these assets.  As such, it is critical that an owner of crypto-currency have a well drafted Power of Attorney and Will, specifically providing the agent with authority over the crypto-currency assets and the necessary information to access such assets.

  1. Estate Planning with Crypto-Currencies

The federal estate tax is based on the value of one’s assets less liabilities at one’s date of death and is imposed at a rate of 40%.  One important exception that is critical to understanding how the federal estate tax works involves the estate and gift tax exemption.  This exemption is the amount that one can transfer to anyone during one’s lifetime or at death without incurring a gift or estate tax.  In 2018, the exemption is $11.18 and this amount will be indexed annually for inflation until 2026, when the exemption amount is scheduled to revert to $5.49 million, with an adjustment for inflation.

For wealthier owners of crypto-currency assets, implementing certain estate planning techniques in order to remove the value of these assets from his or her estate could be highly beneficial.  One such technique would be the creation of a limited liability company (“LLC”), funding the LLC with crypto-currency assets, and then gifting most of the economic value of the LLC to a family trust.

The gift would use a portion of the owner’s federal gift tax exemptions and thus no federal gift tax would be due.  Additionally, if the LLC is created with voting and non-voting membership interests and only the non-voting interests are transferred to the family trust, the value of the gift could be discounted for gift and estate tax purposes.  Moreover, all future appreciation on the value of the LLC interests gifted would accrue outside of the transferor’s taxable estate.

Investors in crypto-currencies are at risk of losing their assets at death unless they plan ahead.  Following these five factors and speaking to an estate planning attorney versed in crypto-currencies will help ensure that digital assets are effectively passed to heirs or beneficiaries.

The New Jersey Tax Court recently released its opinion in Estate of Ruth Oberg, NJ Tax Court, Docket No 000240 (October 24, 2017), upholding the Division of Taxation’s assessment of additional New Jersey estate tax.  The case provides some important reminders about doing proper estate planning.

The estate in this case had a date of death value of $3.1 million and an alternate valuation date value of $2.1 million.  The estate claimed the alternate valuation date on its New Jersey estate tax return.  Unfortunately for the estate, however, the return was filed almost four years after the decedent’s death.  The judge agreed with the Division of Taxation that the return was filed too late to be able to claim the alternate valuation date.

The decedent also had made an undocumented loan to her daughter.  The estate claimed that the loan was a self-cancelling installment note (“SCIN”) and therefore was cancelled at death.  The court, emphasizing the difficulties of proving that an undocumented loan was actually a SCIN, found that the decedent had an interest in the loan at her death, and it was includible in her estate.  The court also found that the Division of Taxation was not bound by the IRS closing letter issued in the estate where the federal estate tax return was accepted as filed.

This is a classic “failure to plan” case.  If the decedent had properly documented the loan, and if the estate tax return had been filed on time, the additional estate tax assessed in the case could have been avoided.

The IRS has withdrawn the controversial proposed regulations under Code §2704 that would have significantly affected the use of discounts in US estate planning.

Code §2704 provides that certain “applicable restrictions” on ownership interests in family entities – that is, entities where the transferor and family members control the entity – should be disregarded for valuation purposes.  The proposed regulations created new rules relating to a lapse of a liquidation right.  They also created a class of restrictions known as “Disregarded Restrictions” that included many common types of restrictions in business entities and would be ignored for gift and estate tax valuation purposes.  See our prior blog post on this topic.

The effect of the proposed regulations appeared to be that they would eliminate or greatly restrict minority interest and lack of marketability discounts that are commonly applied in gift and estate tax valuations (resulting in higher valuations).  The regulations were very controversial from the moment they were issued.  Among other things, commentators said the regulations were unclear and unrealistic.

Treasury and the IRS have stated that they now believe that the approach of the proposed regulations to valuation discounts is unworkable.  The IRS issued a notice (Notice 2017-38) that it was reviewing the proposed regulations as unduly complex or overly burdensome, and has now withdrawn the proposed regulations.

Experts have started to calculate the inflation adjustments to key estate and gift exemption amounts for 2018.  Note that these are not the official figures to be released by the IRS, but should be used as a guide.  The IRS will officially release the numbers later this year.

For an estate of any decedent dying during calendar year 2017, the applicable exclusion was increased from $5.45 million to $5.49 million.  This change increased not only the applicable exclusion amount available at death, but also a taxpayer’s lifetime gift applicable exclusion amount and generation skipping transfer exclusion amount.  This means a husband and wife with proper planning could transfer $10.98 million estate, gift and GST tax free to their children and grandchildren in 2017.  The projected 2018 adjustment to the applicable exclusion will increase from $5.49 million to $5.6 million which means that a husband and wife with proper planning could potentially transfer $11.2 million estate, gift and GST tax free to their children and grandchildren in 2018.

For 2017, the estate, gift and GST tax rate remains the same at 40% and the gift tax annual exclusion remains at $14,000.  For gifts made in 2018, the projected gift tax annual exclusion will be adjusted to $15,000 (up from $14,000 for gifts made in 2017).

The New Jersey Estate Tax repeal will be effective as of January 1, 2018.  The current $2 million exemption which increased on January 1, 2017 is set to be eliminated as of January 1, 2018.  Keep in mind that the New Jersey Inheritance Tax is still in effect. This is a tax imposed on transfers to beneficiaries who are not spouses, parents, children or grandchildren (i.e., nieces, nephews, siblings, friends, etc.) New Jersey Inheritance Tax rates start at 11% and go as high as 16%.

The New York exclusion amount was changed as of April 1, 2014.  Beginning April 1, 2014, the exclusion has increased as follows:

•           $2.0625 million for decedents dying between April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015;

•           $3.125 million for decedents dying between April 1, 2015 through March 31, 2016;

•           $4.1875 million for decedents dying between April 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017;

•           $5.25 million for decedents dying between April 1, 2017 through December 31, 2018.  Beginning in 2019, the exclusion would be indexed for inflation, and equal to the Federal exclusion.

In 2017, the gift tax annual exclusion to a non-citizen spouse was increased from $148,000 to $149,000.  This is projected to increase to $152,000 in 2018.  While gifts between spouses are unlimited if the donee spouse is a United States citizen, there are restrictions when the donee spouse is not a United States citizen.

The US Tax Court recently held that a foreign corporation is not subject to US income tax on the sale of a partnership interest where the partnership conducts a US business.  In so holding, the Tax Court rejected a 26 year old Revenue Ruling (Rev Rul 91-32) that reached the opposite conclusion.  For foreign investors in US businesses (that do not own real estate), this is an important decision.

A foreign investor who owns an interest in a partnership that holds US real estate may be subject to US federal income tax on a sale of that partnership interest under the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (“FIRPTA”).  For real estate, the IRS has indicated that gain derived by a foreign investor from the disposition of an interest in a partnership is subject to US tax only to the extent it is attributable to US real property interests owned by the partnership.  Regs §1.897-7T(a); Notice 88-72.

In Rev Rul 91-32, the IRS set forth its view that taxation on the sale of a partner’s interest in a partnership can go beyond mere real estate investment and apply to a sale of an interest in a partnership if the partnership is engaged in any US trade or business and has effectively connected income (“ECI”).  In this ruling, the IRS applied the “aggregate” theory of partnership taxation to justify looking through the partnership to its underlying assets in determining the source and character of the partner’s gain.

In July, 2017, the Tax Court issued its decision in Grecian Magnesite, Mining, Industrial & Shipping Co, SA v Comm’r, 149 TC 3The court declined to follow the IRS’s long standing position under Rev Rul 91-32, and held that a non-US person’s gain from the sale of its interest in a partnership engaged in a US trade or business is generally not subject to US federal income tax.

Grecian Magnesite Mining was a privately owned corporation organized under the laws of Greece that sells magnesia and magnesite to customers around the world.  From 2001 through 2008, it was a member of a US LLC that was engaged in the business of extracting, producing, and distributing magnesite in the US.  In 2008, Grecian Mining’s interest in the LLC was completely redeemed, resulting in treating the transaction as a sale or exchange of the membership interest.

The IRS asserted that the capital gain was properly treated as ECI since Grecian Mining was engaged in a trade or business as a result of its investment in the LLC.  Grecian Mining’s position was that the assets of the LLC do not control the character of the gain from a disposition of an interest in the LLC.  The gain should not have been treated as US-source gain and generally cannot be taxed in the US as ECI under the proposition that foreign-source income cannot be ECI except in limited instances that arise from the presence of US real estate under FIRPTA, which only applied to a small part of their gain.

Foreign investors should carefully review their US tax exposure on a sale of a partnership interest before they simply pay tax on their realized gain.  Grecian Magnesite calls into question the validity of Rev Rul 91-32 (though an appeal or non-acquiescence is possible).  A foreign investor should be able to rely on this case to avoid paying tax.  Moreover, foreign investors that have already paid income tax based upon Rev Rul 91-32 may wish to file a refund claim based on this decision.