Councilmember Allen Introduces Bills to Bring Estate Planning into the Digital Age and Protect Heirs

PRESS RELEASE – At yesterday’s meeting of the DC Council, Councilmember Charles Allen, Chair of the Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, introduced two pieces of legislation aimed at protecting property rights and digital assets when a family member passes. The two bills are the product of collaborative work with the District’s Uniform Law Commission. 

The Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act of 2017 remedies a longstanding issue faced by many people who inherit property such as land or buildings from an owner who dies without a will. Unless the owner specifies a different form of ownership, their heirs will inherit the property by default as “tenants-in-common”. A tenant-in-common may sell his or her interest in the property without the consent of the other co-tenants, which often results in a forced sale of a family’s most valuable asset. Further, a creditor can seek repayment from a single tenant-in-common and negatively impact all of the other joint owners.

This practice, over time, has contributed to widespread land loss and difficulty in accumulating generational wealth, particularly among African-Americans. In response, the bill preserves a co-tenant’s right to sell their share while providing certain protections.

This uniform law has been enacted by eight states, introduced in four others so far in 2017, and is supported by the NAACP, the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Bar Association, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others. The bill was co-introduced by Councilmember Allen with Councilmember David Grosso, Councilmember Anita Bonds, and Councilmember Jack Evans.

The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act of 2017 gives internet users the ability to plan for the management and disposition of their “digital assets” in a similar way to how they plan for their physical property. “Digital assets” generally means documents, photographs, email, and social media accounts, and can include digital currency such as BitCoin. 

The bill provides legal authority for fiduciaries to manage digital assets as the user specifies in their estate plan, while protecting the privacy of the user’s electronic communications. The bill has been enacted by 21 states, introduced in 18 others, and is supported by AARP, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Facebook, Google, and the D.C. Bar’s Taxation Section. The bill was co-introduced by Councilmember Allen with Councilmember David Grosso, Councilmember Anita Bonds, Councilmember Jack Evans, and Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. 

Both bills have been referred to the Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety for consideration. 

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