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Book Review – Digital Executor: Unravelling The New Path For Estate Planning

Sharon Hartung kindly provided me with a digital advanced reader copy of her most recent book: ‘DIGITAL EXECUTOR. Unraveling the New Path for Estate Planning’. You may recall my review of Sharon’s first book on the subject, ‘YOUR DIGITAL UNDERTAKER: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada’.

I read all 7 chapters within 1 ½ days. While I would like to have you believe this was an easy read, I have to be honest and tell you that though it was interesting, informative and thought provoking, it filled me with anxiety about the fast moving pace of technology, the growing extent of digital asset holdings, and all of the ancillary and associated planning, record keeping, rules, risks, user agreements, licenses, security, and protocols for digital asset preservation and retrieval during incapacity and after death.

This read instilled in me the urgency of current estate planning, incapacity planning and estate administration from a digital asset perspective. Sharon talks about the implications for every individual regardless of the size of the clients’ digital footprint, or value attributed to same. The question of how one’s executor will administer digital assets after death will much depend on in-life planning.

Sharon describes the intent of her book, “to raise awareness on digital assets and the impact the internet and technology have on estate planning and financial and wealth management across the death care and estate industries”. The book explores four avenues:

  1. The context of where technology fits in a client’s estate, an advisor’s profession, and organizational practices;
  2. The fundamental reasons why the digital topic is critical to advisors;
  1. A deep dive into various digital assets within a client’s port- folio, introducing an advisor to the technical management and user aspects of the topic. This section is the bulk of the book;
  2. The book leaves the reader with a context of where digital assets sit in the broader digital transformation underway in the estate industry, and the impact this transformation is likely to have on individual businesses serving clients and their estate fiduciary and advisors.

Sharon addresses industry transformation and generational affects including on Millennials, GenZ, and Coronials (a newly minted term for those born during Covid-19). I finally know and think i understand what a “blockchain” is, and cryptocurrencies…well kind of!

IT hygiene during life is discussed-though i can say, I generally hate IT-just ask my IT providers. They might even just hate me as much as I hate IT! My general disdain for IT however is not going to make it disappear or even remain static for me to have a hope of catching up or ever using it to its full capacity.

Sharon impresses on her reader that an individual’s physical and digital estates are intertwined, and as such estate professional advisors must stay current as jurisdictional legislation and case law evolve.

Sharon uses examples of certain technology providers such as Facebook, Google as permitting pre-planning options. As a TEP with STEP, I was happy to see STEP as an industry leader referenced several times in Sharon’s book with references to several STEP checklists and writings to help global advisors.

Sharon even talks about the use of tech language, and its eventual standardization, and the different terms used to describe digital assets, including digital property, virtual assets, digital files, intangible assets, intangible personal property, technological assets, paperless assets, cyber assets, crypto assets etc. and so on.

In a year of electronic court filings, changing on-line systems and technology, virtual business meetings, virtual signings and taking instructions virtually, it is likely impossible now not to avoid these rapid changes. Sharon speaks of a new role in the estate world -that of the technical advisor- Sharon describes herself as a career IT management practitioner. In order to enter the estate industry, she started with the STEP Diploma program.

The importance of a fiduciary in managing and administering an estate has traditionally been the paper-trails, but paper-trails will become less likely to exist in a digital world. Sharon mentions The Uniform Law Conference of Canada, the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act  (2016) (entered into force June) which defines digital assets and sets a framework for fiduciary access to and management of digital assets. Apparently, only Saskatchewan has thus far, been the only province to enact it.

Sharon flags the staggering numbers in unclaimed assets from accounts, insurances, tax refunds and so on. She talks about the conundrum of future trickier technology to navigate, for instance in the use of biometric passwords including retinol scans or fingerprints. Sharon delves into the implication of taxable attributes, privacy issues, cybercrime, identity theft, keeping technology and software current. To the estate planner-the importance of learning and understanding a client’s digital asset base is becoming more critical even in simple planning discovery items such as email and how it is used, access, what about loyalty points, an estate inventory, memorializations, digital vaults, obituary surfing and beyond

Sharon provides guidance for Fiduciaries:

  • Create a list of the digital assets they find;
  • Evaluate how to secure them;
  • Review the Will;
  • Review any other supporting documents;
  • Review the licensing agreements;
  • Research digital assets providers for guidance or cautionary statements;
  • Determine which digital assets provide digital access to an underlying asset (e.g., bank account), which the fiduciary;
  • Should not have accessed online;
  • Determine if the value needs to be assessed;
  • Determine if other expertise is required;
  • Find any tax information; and,
  • Detail any proposed actions for accessing, securing, transferring, or disposing of assets

I recommend this eye opening, anxiety causing read to you-you can’t avoid these digital estates anymore!

Another related read was my recent discovery of Ian Hull, Suzana Popovic-Montag, and Nick Esterbauer’s Article in the ETPJ, Planning Considerations For Digital Assets: Vol. 38 No. 3 of the Estates Trusts & Pensions Journal.

Believe me estate colleagues- you MUST read these works and get digital current!!

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