A family member died, and they owned crypto. How do I recover their Bitcoin?
A few notes before we get started:
First, I’d like to say that I’m very sorry for your loss.
Second, let’s be up-front that recovering the deceased’s crypto assets will be difficult, and it could take a while — if it’s possible at all.
Third, family members often want to help. On the one hand, this is wonderful. Having someone you 100% trust take part can be very helpful. But, remember that crypto-assets (at least from a legal standpoint) are just another asset owned by the deceased. Helping to recover those assets doesn’t give that family member any preferential right to a share of the asset. Remember that division of assets following a death may ultimately be decided through a probate process, and that process may supersede any informal agreement about how recovered crypto assets will get divided.
Finally, a comment about security. Many of the cryptocurrency wallets created since 2013 have used a very simple backup mechanism called a recovery seed (also known as a mnemonic, a seed phrase, or a recovery phrase). These phrases are almost always either 12 or 24 words long (although they can be as long as 25 words). These phrases are a curious combination of username and password — and if you were to find one, and then share it with the wrong person, that person could remove all the funds from your wallet leaving you with essentially no recourse to recover the funds.
There are, in fact, many ways to lose access to your crypto, so proceed with extreme caution when sharing information and especially when asking questions online.
Who has the right to recover a dead relative’s crypto?
In most countries (including the US and most of the West), crypto is an asset that needs to go through the probate system like any other asset.
This generally means that only the administrator of the estate has the right to recover the funds, and they will likely need to report the funds back to the probate court. (If the deceased had debts when they died, for example, the probate court might decide that some of the crypto funds recovered should go towards paying back those debts).
Generally speaking, you want to see if you can find evidence of crypto accounts first. Then, once you believe there are accounts, call your local probate court and ask them how to proceed.
How to Track Down Crypto Accounts
Most people that have acquired cryptoassets since 2015 probably manage them through a login process that requires an email address and a password. So, often the quickest place to start is by checking their email account.
However, anyone that was into Bitcoin early, or that was very security conscious may have used a wallet that is not connected to an email account. There are many types of non-custodial crypto accounts that would not necessarily show up in someone’s email account. If they owned Bitcoin since 2009, that might only be discoverable by looking through the filesystems of the computers that they own. This article may help you track that down.
Can you login to the deceased’s primary email accounts?
- If yes, skip to the section titled “What to do once you have access to the deceased’s email”
- If no, read on.
How to Get Access to the Deceased’s Email Accounts
If you don’t know the deceased’s password for a particular account, but you know some of their other passwords, and you have the legal right to access their accounts, then you can use the “forgot password” or “reset password” options to try to reset the account.
If that fails, you may try to guess their email password based on their other passwords. Know that you probably will have a limited number of incorrect guesses before the account gets locked.
If that also fails, then you need to get legal help. Most email providers require a court order to grant you access to a deceased person’s email account. This means that you’ll need to get a lawyer involved.
Here are some pages for popular email providers:
What to Do Once you Have Access to the Deceased’s Email
You’re looking for evidence of one of two kinds of accounts:
- a custodial crypto account (with a company like Coinbase.com, Gemini.com, Nexo.io, etc). If you find evidence of that, then those companies are the custodians of the funds, meaning that when you have provided them with the correct paperwork, they will give control of those accounts over to the administrator of the deceased’s estate.
- Coinbase.com has an article on the topic here.
- a non-custodial crypto account (with a company like Blockchain.info / Blockchain.com / Dogechain.info, etc). If you find evidence of these assets, things may be trickier. Your deceased relative was actually the custodian of these accounts — meaning that there’s no one that can reset the password on the account. They may have those passwords stored in a password manager (like their Chrome password manager, or LastPass), they may have written them down somewhere, or those passwords may be lost. If the passwords are entirely lost, then you can try to guess them yourself or you’d need to work with a company like ours to try to recover them.
Caveat: crypto, like any other asset, has to go through a probate process. So, if at any point we were to work with you to recover passwords or anything like that, we’d need to work with whoever is the administrator of the estate, and we have to verify their id and probate documentation.