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Estate Administration in the Digital Era: Digital Assets, Cryptocurrency and More

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July 1, 2019
Jane M. Fearn-Zimmer
Cherry Hill, NJ

The probate proceedings for the estate of the late musical artist, Prince Rogers Nelson, have been repeatedly profiled in the national news for a variety of reasons. Here are some digital age strategies for dealing with cutting-edge estate administration issues, including identifying heirs, working with digital assets and block chain technology, and administering estate assets in specialized industries.

  1. Genetic testing can determine the rightful heirs. If parentage may become an issue, obtain an order authorizing DNA testing of the decedent’s blood sample as soon as possible after death. Obtain a court order for genetic testing of purported heirs early on in the proceedings.
  1. Identify, catalogue, disclose and value digital assets. Digital assets include a wide variety of electronic files and works. Some examples are digital accounts (i.e., social media, e-mail and online commercial accounts such as Etsy and Amazon), video and audio files and electronically stored media (such as photographs, art, music, and original works and blogs), knowledge stored in electronic databases or formats (i.e., software and architectural plans). Cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin) and block-chain technologies are also digital assets. Some forms of digital assets are more easily monetized than others. Digital assets are regarded as personal property by the taxing authorities and as such, must be clearly identified and properly valued on death tax returns. See I.R.S. Notice 2014-21. In some cases, discounts for lack of marketability may be appropriate. Initial coin offerings (ICO’s) may be subject to registration requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1933.
  1. Hire experts for specialized industries. Prince’s estate held a wide range of intellectual property. The personal representative faced unique business challenges, such as operating multiple entertainment businesses, overseeing a real estate portfolio and a museum, archiving a vast quantity of audio and video assets, and safeguarding personal property. The use of entertainment and other industry experts was needed to help monetize the estate’s assets.
  1. File any confidential information disclosed to the court under seal. Consider whether to file sensitive information under seal. Sensitive matters could range from business and licensing negotiations and confidential litigation settlements to details relating to parentage.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA. You can contact Jane by phone at 856.661.2283 or by emailing jane.zimmer@flastergreenberg.com.

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