When we die in the "real" world, we have the right to bequeath, to anyone, our material assets. This includes any property or investments both physical and monetary. So what happens to our digital assets in the event of our death?

These days, it is possible to accrue legitimate virtual wealth, whether it be through crypto-currencies such as bitcoin or within games such as World of Warcraft. Bitcoin continues to be used for an increasing variety of goods and services. Even online games have developed their own booming economies. In fact, these in-game markets have grown so large and unwieldy in some cases, that developers have begun hiring economists to manage them.

Do we have the same legal ability to transfer ownership these assets as we do their real world counterparts? What’s the difference? Well, it’s complicated. Since these virtual accounts exist within proprietary systems they each follow their own sets of rules.

Whether or not individuals besides the deceased party are even allowed to legally access those systems is still up for debate. Many companies disagree with allowing access at all, claiming privacy issues. However, Delaware passed a law late last year to allow broad access to digital assets for an executor or an heir. And just last month Facebook began allowing users to name a legacy account holder to maintain their profile in the event of their death.

In any case, one organization says it is essential that we at least leave behind a detailed guide for how to handle these assets after we die. Plus, there is no shortage of online services that offer to maintain the digital legacies of the deceased. If anything, without proper attention being given to what we store online, it could be lost forever.

We reached out to some experts to find out the exact details of how to handle our digital assets when we die.

What happens to your Bitcoin, PayPal and World of Warcraft money if you die and don't have a will?. Image 1.

PayPal’s Guide

for Closing the Account 
of a Deceased Relative

 ONLY THE ACCOUNT OWNER can close their account, unless the owner is deceased.

 TO CLOSE THE ACCOUNT of someone who died, the estate executor needs to fax the following to (402) 537-5732:

— A cover sheet that states the account holder is deceased and the executor wants to close the PayPal account.

— A copy of the death certificate for the account holder.

— A copy of the deceased account holder's will or legal documentation that provides the information regarding the executor.

— A copy of a photo ID of the executor.

 THE DOCUMENTATION will be reviewed and, if approved, the account will be closed. If there are funds in the PayPal account, a check will be issued in the account holder's name.



Andrew Miller

Computer Science 
PhD Student

Educator in Princeton’s 
bitcoin online course

The Bitcoin network itself behaves like an automated, robotic system. It doesn't know or care about people, inheritance, or legal definitions of ownership. The only authority it recognizes is digital signatures! If you have the private key and can generate correct signatures, then you can move the coins. If a person dies and the password to their brainwallet or password-protected wallet file expires along with them, then there is no way to move those coins, they're frozen forever. On the other hand, if the wallet file is simply stored on the deceased's personal computer, then whoever gets that computer has access to the coins.

On the other hand, the ordinary legal notions of ownership do still apply to Bitcoin, regardless of whether the Bitcoin network helps enforce them or not. I'm not a lawyer, and even as a hobbyist not very well informed about these details. But I believe the law treats Bitcoin no differently than any other virtual property. So the answer about legal rights involving inheritance and transferring etc. are probably the same as to the question: who owns your Facebook profile after you die, or your blog, your domain name, your World of Warcraft character?

The main difference is that in all of the above scenarios, there is a legal administrator of the website or virtual world. Whoever has legal right to the virtual property can compel the administrator to respect that legal right, e.g. they can demand that a registrar transfer ownership of a domain name to next of kin. With Bitcoin, there is no such administrator to turn to in this way. If someone takes the deceased's Bitcoins illegally (I think this is called "inheritance hijacking"), there may be grounds for a lawsuit against them, but you can't compel the Bitcoin network itself to do anything about it. 

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Ned Coker

CCP Games Senior PR and Social Lead
(CCP controls EVE Online among other games)

I checked with our GM team on this and they tell me all user assets belong to CCP after a user passes away without exception.

They are not transferable, you can't will them to anybody else or anything like that.


Edward Castronova

Author of Wildcat CurrencyHow the Virtual Money 
Revolution Is Transforming the Economy

A WoW account belongs to whoever has the password. If the guy dies and takes his password with him, it just sits there forever, or until the game closes.

The value of the account is part of the estate, technically speaking. I don't know of any situation where the virtual money accounts were big enough to be worth including in the estate determination though.

As for stuff like bitcoin, it's the same. The bitcoin belongs to the estate. It's just a normal asset I assume.


(or 11 trillion ISK, the Eve Online currency)

— costs sn epic EVE Online space battle recently. Most of that came from the wreckage of massive “Titan” space-ships, which cost between $3,000 and $3,500 a piece in real money. (Exchange rates vary in EVE.)



Joseph Bonneau

Postdoctoral researcher at the Applied Crypto Group at Stanford University and a Technology,

Fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

With bitcoin there are no rules for this. Control of bitcoins comes down to who owns a private key file and they will be lost unless the owner finds a way to transfer this to somebody in their will. Many people, of course, store their bitcoins with an online exchange (roughly like a bank) so they could transfer them to somebody else agree death, but the industry is quite new and I think many exchanges have no policy in place for this yet. That's what I know of the matter.