Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
If you know you have an old Bitcoin or Dogecoin account somewhere but haven’t managed to dig out your credentials, you might be in for a nasty surprise.
With the advent of cryptocurrency, nine states have now passed rules including them as a form of unclaimed property, and several more require or recommend companies to report their unclaimed virtual currency. That means that this fall, when banks, insurers, retailers and government agencies are required to report and transfer unclaimed funds annually, your old cryptocurrency account can be liquidated and turned over to the government real estate bureau for unclaimed assets.
There are many concerns about this possibility, not the least of which is the fact that liquidating a cryptocurrency account prevents the owner from realizing future profits.
But there is also a bigger economic problem, says Kristine Butterbaugh, Solution Principal at the tax firm Sovos.
“Some of our clients don’t want to liquidate these accounts as it could affect the entire market,” she says. “We’re talking about millions of accounts, potentially across the country.”
What messes things up is the lack of clarity about the rules surrounding the cryptocurrency. Unclaimed ownership is written for traditional property, but now it is enforced for non-traditional property.
This is how the unclaimed property law usually works: Every fall, businesses are required to transfer unclaimed property to the state. In order for accounts and other financial instruments to be considered unclaimed, they must be dormant for three to five years, depending on the state. This means that the account holder did not access the account or respond to any communications. Once the account is deemed unclaimed, it is transferred to the general state fund.
That’s all well and good when we talk about a traditional bank account that sits around and earns minimal – if any – interest. But states are not equipped to hold cryptocurrencies, so they are urging companies to convert these accounts into cash before handing them over.
Now let’s say you watched the meteoric rise of Dogecoin last spring and decided to go hunting for the coins that you invested in on a whim a few years ago. And when you finally tracked them down, did you find that your account was liquidated in November, robbing you of thousands of dollars in potential revenue? You’d probably be pretty mad.
“Companies are in a really awkward position because they’re not sure whether to liquidate or not for fear of retaliation from the owners,” says Butterbaugh. “And then the state says: ‘You have to’, even if it is not expressly stated in the law.”
States are also motivated to enforce property laws that are not enforced because doing so is a revenue gain for them. Although the state keeps track of the amount due and the rightful owner can eventually claim the money at any time, states can in the meantime use the money for their general operations. This may seem like a gamble, but according to Accounting Today, only about 2% of unclaimed property is ever returned to the real owner.
Home to more than a million companies, Delaware is one of the most aggressive states when it comes to property auditing, having secured hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed property and fines over the past decade.
So companies are stuck between wanting not to be penalized for non-compliance and the fear of liquidating a cryptocurrency account. They want more clarity about what to do, and Butterbaugh says two places – New York and Washington, DC – are working on a solution.
But in the meantime, she advises companies that trade cryptocurrency to take care of their dormant accounts now.