Where Will My Stars Go? A review of Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada

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Project Management seems to be a bit of a buzzword these days. It may be the new ‘innovation’ or ‘synergy’, but the way author Sharon Hartung applies project management techniques to dealing with estate planning in her book Your Digital Undertaker, is nothing short of brilliant.

At the onset of this review I want to articulate two things:

(1) Your Digital Undertaker taught me things about estate administration completely outside of the digital realm including and not limited to some intricacies of trusts and taxes (lay terminology, examples, and diagrams go a long way with me!).

(2) I am now recommending this as a read to anyone getting started in gift planning, anyone teaching gift planning, anyone mildly interested in gift planning… you get the drift. This book provides the bigger picture that we don’t often see or fully understand as gift planners. In fact, unless you have been an executor yourself, you may not altogether grasp the process as a whole – the old adage is true: you don’t know what you don’t know.

Hartung begins her book by sharing her personal experience managing her mom’s estate. It is a viewpoint we are rarely offered and one I found deeply insightful. Amid the grief of sudden loss, Hartung managed her way through a very complicated experience, and is now offering this story up so that we might learn from it.

I also found this book deeply personal. Various parts reminded me of long-forgotten conversations with family members and of situations with donors that I hadn’t thought of in years. I’m sure every gift planner has had a conversation with the donor who mentions that they don’t plan on using a lawyer. In the past that I have only been able to think through the charitable side of why I would recommend that the donor re-think that decision; now I feel armed to better approach that comment. And although we are always very careful not to demonstrate undue influence or provide legal advice, I think that if we can understand some of the other reasons why a lawyer is a helpful ally for donors, then we can better speak to why we might advise a donor to visit one.

Hartung has considerable background in project management and describes how her knowledge in this space helped her through the difficult task of her mom’s estate, and then her own planning thereafter. She provides a handy checklist and applies this checklist to each chapter, making it easy to also jump around in the book and apply the checklist as a resource in particular situations. If you feel compelled after reading the book to re-explore your own plans, Hartung has also created a project management matrix to get you started. It’s like a cheat sheet to make it less daunting. Gold.

For the lawyers and professional advisors, Hartung has carved out some areas in the book that might be of particular interest. Pet projects abound if you want to dig into areas that need clarification under the law. Hartung provides the example of the fiduciary access laws on digital assets; we definitely need someone to take on the baton of clarifying jurisdiction for executors in all realms of new technologies and digital assets.

This being said, this book also has some meaty areas for development for any tech entrepreneurs in our midst: with our ageing society and rapid onset of new cyber security, someone, somewhere has got to figure out after-death access processes, especially with the onset of biometric passwords, as Hartung points out.

You may feel compelled to disregard this book if you feel that it doesn’t relate to you you or your donors/clients just yet. Not all of us have taken the leap into cryptocurrencies, after all. But, Hartung also does a good job of bringing forward many questions as to what may qualify as a digital asset. From photos to subscriptions, and apps, it gets you thinking. As an example, if I now view my Starbucks app as a digital asset, I might be more careful to ensure that I am really considering the funds when I load it and ensuring my husband has access. After all, I would hate those star rewards to go wasted! But Hartung provides a good reminder that all of the loyalty points we wrack up today may not actually even be ours. Starbucks may have a different policy on whether my husband is even eligible to redeem… I should look into this.

And you should read this book.

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