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Digital Assets in Estate Planning & Administration

Digital assets are a relatively recent part of everyday life but become important piece in estate planning and administration. Their role is bound to become a larger issue in Pennsylvania in 2021 with the passage of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (“RUFADAA”) during July of this year. The new law will be found in Chapter 39 of Title 20 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes in January.

Even without the statute, digital assets could not be ignored due to their increasing presence. The first step in dealing with them is to understand what they are and then to take an inventory of the ones that you have. The number and the pervasiveness of these property rights may not be realized from day to day, but a thorough inventory will demonstrate that they need to be an important part of your estate plan.

Pennsylvania’s 2021 Law Regarding Digital Assets & Fiduciaries

As have most states, Pennsylvania has passed the uniform law defining a digital asset as an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest while not including an underlying asset or liability that is not an electronic record. As an example, an online banking account would be a digital asset, but the money in the account is a physical asset not covered by this law. However, as technology continues to advance, the possibility that the underlying asset also is a digital asset has grown. If the currency in the account is a virtual currency, such as bitcoins, then all of the relevant assets in this situation are digital in nature. In addition, these types of assets generally have associated “metadata,” which is additional information about the specific assets that are intended to make finding and using them easier.

Start with a Comprehensive Digital Asset Inventory

Generating a comprehensive list of digital assets to include in an inventory probably is the best way to begin estate planning for this category of property. The problem with this approach is that the list of possible assets continues to expand so, while comprehensive today, any list soon could become outdated. If you have an idea of the types of digital assets that exist, this will aid you in recognizing other possibilities when you creating or updating your estate plan.

Since the universe of digital assets seems to expand exponentially, you should look at information and data that are stored in electronic form on numerous devices (such as personal computers, external hard drives, and flash drives) as well as online and, increasingly, in the cloud. The following are among the common categories that you might have: emails; text messages; photos; videos; audio recordings; social media; records and other documents; websites, blogs, and domain names that belong to you; and digital wallets.

Your estate plan should deal with the different types of digital assets in an appropriate manner. You may want some to be saved and others deleted. Various accounts may need to be transferred so that they can continue to be used. If the property has a monetary value or generates revenue, then you have to look at who should possess it when you can no longer use it. Of course, digital assets may be subject to contracts or terms of service that must be reviewed when planning because they can control what can be transferred and this would be accomplished.

Importance of a Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

While digital assets continue to grow in importance, people may not always have a plan in place for a time when they might require someone to step into a fiduciary role and handle these assets when are not able to do so. In the past, this has caused some difficulties with digital assets. The enactment of RUFADAA will set various default rules when these scenarios arise in Pennsylvania in the future. A look at these defaults will take place a little later in this review.

States have control over laws that establish duties of fiduciaries, who must act make decisions for the benefit of individuals for whom they are acting. States often will set the rules to follow when other provisions have not been made. Legislation, such as Pennsylvania’s RUFADAA, can play an important role by “providing consistent rules and procedures from state to state,” according to the Uniform Law Commission that drafted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act in order to achieve this objective.

While there can be, and are, some differences among states in the laws that have been passed after the uniform law for fiduciaries was drafted, they do accomplish uniformity from state to state to a great extent. One must remember that, when reading the following overview of Pennsylvania’s new law, the law in any given state with a uniform law may be similar but cannot be assumed to be identical.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act in Pennsylvania applies to a fiduciary acting under a Will or Power of Attorney; a personal representative acting on behalf of a decedent; a proceeding for the appointment of a guardian of the estate for an allegedly incapacitated individual as well as someone named as the guardian; and a trustee acting under a trust (20 Pa.C.S. Section 3903). The basic idea behind this law is that default rules are needed if you have not stated your preferences.

Limitations of the New Law’s Scope

However, these rules are limited in their scope because they cannot trump federal privacy laws, for example. This can lead to the situation involving emails in which so-called “envelope” information – which can include the identities of senders and recipients as well as time of transmission – generally is not within privacy protections while the actual content of the email is granted such protection under the uniform law. It should be noted that even the envelope is shielded from the government and law enforcement agencies.

While the default rules serve a purpose when an individual does not create a plan regarding access during incapacity or after death, the individual can deal with digital assets similarly to the way that control over tangible assets can be directed. The same legal tools may be employed, although important differences can exist.

Some New Definitions to Learn

When a “custodian” (as defined in Section 3902 of Pennsylvania’s Title 20 of its Consolidated Statutes) stores a digital asset of a “user” (i.e., a person having an account with a custodian), the custodian might offer an “online tool” that permits the user to choose a “designated recipient” to control decisions about the digital asset involved.

The definition of an “online tool” also is found in Section 3902. However, what it means probably is less obvious than other terms that have been mentioned, but it likely is the most important one to understand. Section 3902 defines it as “an electronic service provided by a custodian” allowing a “user, in an agreement distinct from the terms-of-service agreement between the custodian and user, to provide directions” regarding disclosing digital assets to third parties. Under RUFADAA, the online tool will control access, but not every custodian provides this tool and not every user takes advantage of its existence when one is offered by the custodian. Therefore, the uniform law establishes a hierarchy of other possibilities that can apply.

RUFADAA’s Hierarchy for Access After Online Tools

For example, when there is no online tool to provide direction, Section 3904(b) of Pennsylvania’s version of RUFADAA provides for the rung in the hierarchy just below online tools. At this point, the appropriate person who is named in a Will, a Trust, or a Power of Attorney as the fiduciary regarding any or all digital assets will be able to obtain the information that the user has permitted pursuant to the relevant legal document. Of course, being higher in the hierarchy, an online tool can override the terms of these legal documents.

The law also defines a third level of the hierarchy, which is the terms-of-service agreement. When the agreement does not require the user to act “affirmatively and distinctly from the user’s assent to the terms of service,” the user can provide for either of the first two instruments to “override a contrary provision” in the agreement (as noted in Section 3904(c)). Otherwise, the terms-of-service agreement can be followed to determine the rights to access and to use digital assets.

The Role & Authority of a Fiduciary under RUFADAA

The role of a fiduciary has been mentioned throughout this article. Unless the law provides authority for tools or orders, for example, that would override the powers given to a fiduciary, anyone who is named to fill this position can have considerable authority and corresponding responsibility. However, RUFADAA does provide limits. For instance, relevant terms of service cannot be ignored; additionally, a fiduciary is subject to other applicable laws, such as copyright laws.

Other limitations come from the duties of a fiduciary that include the duty of care, the duty of loyalty, and the duty of confidentiality. Also, due to potential obstacles that can delay the fiduciary’s efforts, there may be a temptation to take a short cut that, essentially, involves the impersonation of the user, which may be possible if the username and password of the user are known to the fiduciary. While it may be the easier to proceed this way, the law does not permit this tactic. Fiduciaries can use authority provided by the user in accordance with Section 3904 but can be held accountable if they go beyond this scope.

Section 3915 specifically deals with what fiduciaries can and cannot do regarding digital assets. Unless the right to a digital asset is held by a custodian or is controlled by a terms-of-service agreement, the fiduciary will have the right to access digital assets that belonged to the user as long as the fiduciary has been given authority over the assets of this individual. The fiduciary will be viewed as an authorized user of the property of a decedent (estate), settlor (trust), principal (power of attorney), or protected person (guardianship) under such circumstances. The new law also sets out what a fiduciary will need to do in order to request that an account be terminated when the time is deemed appropriate.

When a Fiduciary Seeks Content of Electronic Communications

When fiduciaries have authority that goes beyond “envelope” information, they will be faced some specific challenges. This would be a situation in which a deceased user extends the fiduciary’s power to dealing with digital assets to the actual content of electronic communications after the user’s death. This can be a very touchy area due to information that those communications may contain. If there is a custodian involved, the decedent’s personal representative, acting in a fiduciary capacity, may find that obtaining the content can be time consuming and, sometimes, extremely difficult. The decedent may have made this task easier by consenting to the release of the content of communications sent or received. Otherwise, the personal representative will have to explore asking the court that is involved to issue an Order that the information can be disclosed.

In both scenarios, the fiduciary for the estate then can request that the custodian provide the electronic communication’s content. However, the request may seem simple to make but can be much harder to implement; Section 3907 explains the steps. First, the personal representative needs to send a written request for disclosure in physical or electronic form, along with a certified copies of the death certificate and the grant of letters (either testamentary or of administration), plus a copy of the Will or other record that shows that the user consented to disclosure of the content.

Finally, the law can permit the custodian to request information that identifies the account as that of the decedent, with evidence linking the account to the user or a finding by a court specifying that the user had the account in question, that the information sought is “reasonably necessary” for the estate’s administration, and that federal privacy laws or other applicable laws would not be violated by the disclosure. As digital assets continue to proliferate, fiduciaries need to be prepared to overcome hurdles such as these in order to fulfill their duties and meet their responsibilities.

This brief look at digital assets and laws that are supposed to deal with them provides an idea that how the world’s increasing complexities since the internet age began in the mid-1980s. As technology advances, we must be ready to keep pace in life and in death. New laws have to understood, and we must attempt to keep up with additional laws that will be on the horizon. Then, the changing technological – and legal – environment must be part of the estate planning process. The last link involves fiduciaries who must be willing and able to understand what they can do and how they can do it as they are tasked with administrating estates, running trusts, implementing power of attorney, and carrying out guardianships. The future may not get any easier, but we have to be ready to face its inevitable challenges.