Book Review - Digital Executor: Unraveling the New Path for Estate Planning by Sharon Hartung


Delving into the first pages of Digital Executor: Unraveling the New Path for Estate Planning triggered a memory of a Skype conversation with my dad a number of years ago. He, in his leather easy chair, the camera focused on his face from the nose up, wanted help in copying and pasting content onto a Word document. As a tech-avoidant but somewhat capable user myself, to walk a retired digital newcomer verbally through this very simple process was eye-opening in terms of my own knowledge and patience, and my own digital know-how in working with others. Needless to say, I have a lot of learning still to do in all three areas.

I’m sure many of us as individuals, advisors, and employees, have been tasked with digital coaching at some point. We personally and professionally use digital assets to different lengths and for various purposes. No matter where we are on the continuum, we need to know enough and how to go about finding the answers. Most importantly, we need to meet people where they are at with technology and language in order to be effective as practitioners.

This is what Sharon Hartung covers beautifully with her new book, Digital Executor: Unraveling the New Path for Estate Planning. This book was written for global advisors, the estate industry, and tech sector, but is accessible and helpful to anyone no matter the hat(s) they wear. The Digital Executor summarizes the scope of digital assets – simply put - our MONEY, MEMORIES, and RECORDS. The book demonstrates the need and ways for them to be considered and integrated as part of the estate and incapacity planning and administration and our roles in those processes as professionals. Conversely, the need for the tech industry to build understanding of the estate industry. In addition, Hartung includes her predictions on the digitization of the global estate industry and how consumers can drive evolution in integrated offerings from providers – from #fintech to #estatetech.

This book is a follow-up to Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada reviewed by co-conspirator and friend Janice St. Denis, which was created for individual estate planning. The Digital Executor builds on that to broaden current understanding from individual, fiduciary, advisor, technological, and global viewpoints, acknowledging things will continue to evolve quickly, out of necessity, and in unknown ways. The speed of societal change (in some ways) can be difficult to keep pace with, as the pandemic has demonstrated through its disruption for many businesses, but is necessary. The best example being the digitization of the Will in the estate industry. The speed with which estate and the tech sectors have come together has catching up to do, but we are seeing some change and rapidly increasing demand.

While it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by all there is to consider, the Digital Executor provides comfort and guidance on as much information readers would need for their own perspective role(s).

For example, rather than trying to completely immerse in all things digital asset management as an estate advisor, ask the client for their top three digital assets (eg. Gmail, cryptocurrency, or Twitter account), then understanding each from that user‘s perspective, pre-planning options, terms of service and jurisdiction considerations. This can help advisors wisely advise the client, as well as know when and how to connect to technical expertise.

The Digital Executor makes clear that the whole of our lives are now an increasing blend of physical, digital assets, and the ripple effect of gaps, disconnect, lack of planning and communication will have broader implications than ever before. There needs to be communication and clarity on scope, roles, and responsibilities for all those wrapped around a client in these increasingly complex times.

One simple but startling example I learned was that a fiduciary should not access a Will-maker’s asset through a username and password provided by the maker, but with the proper documentation to work with the provider to create their own login and password for access. Without the ability to legally access that asset, the ramifications can potentially be enormous.

Oddly, the topic of death doesn’t intimidate me but navigating the changing digital world can. The Digital Executor’s accessibility and practicality made it an easy, important read for anyone who touches incapacity or end of life experiences, planning or administration. The good news is, in this digital and virtual world, it still comes down to understanding people, relationships, and connection too.

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