Sharon Hartung is a retired aerospace engineer and a captain in the RCAF. She is also a first time author of a book exploring death in the digital age in Canada, called Your Digital Undertaker. Hartung answered questions from Prime Times about her book, and what we should know about when it comes to will and estate planning in the 21st century.
What prompted you to write the book?
It started when my mom died without a will. In dealing with her estate, I realized how big the job of the executor was, and yet somehow, we still haven’t learned to talk about death. I couldn’t find a basic how-to-manual, and everything that was available was written for the predigital world. So, I dealt with it the same way I dealt with any military or IBM project; I put on my project management hat and created charts, diagrams and checklists. When I was done with her estate, I took all the information and created a simple guide to getting your affairs in order with Your Digital Undertaker.
Were you surprised at how much there was to learn about death in the digital age?
Before I considered the digital aspects of an estate, I was completely surprised at how complicated the executor’s job is. Any project you take on in life can seem daunting when you do it the first time, but I didn’t realize the executor’s job literally means stepping into the deceased person’s shoes, picking up where they left off, shutting down their lives, and executing their wishes. The role often involves dealing with government agencies and financial institutions. Ultimately, the executor’s role is that of a project manager, and with any big project the project manager, or in this case the executor is dealing with timelines, professionals, deadlines and in the death project everyone’s least favourite entity – the tax man, or Canada’s Revenue Agency.
You write about building a ‘death project’. What do you mean by that?
The death project refers to the project you would take on to get your affairs in order. Something that has a start date and end date; something we can get done, put behind us and get back to enjoying our lives. Estate planning or an estate plan might not be terms that the average person relates to. The terminology might seem daunting or may appear to apply only to someone of great wealth. I had no idea what the terms meant until I had to deal with my mother’s estate, and discovered that an estate plan is simply a collection of papers that captures an individual’s desires for dealing with their property upon death.
Is there more to estate planning than just preparing a will?
A will is considered a basic component of an estate plan. Each of us have different life circumstances, we own different property types, we have different wishes about how we’d like to take care of our loved ones, and we are likely to have different legacy or philanthropic wishes. There are a number of instruments, mechanisms, and options that estate planners recommend to assist with estate planning goals and addressing associated wishes. For example, an estate plan simply captures the options, choices and plans you have made for insurance, beneficiary designations of registered plans, financial products, trusts, and your gifting legacy.
Just like any new asset or property you acquire, it is important to include your desires for disbersement or closure of your digital assets in your estate plan. You many have a digital footprint that has financial value, such as your loyalty points or your travel rewards. You may have a digital life of emotional or sentimental value such as family photos. And, unfortunately with social media it can have an undesirable digital afterlife if you don’t specify your wishes about those accounts. Do you want them left memorialized or shut down?
Given we do everything online, even our physical assets might be invisible to the executor if you don’t list them or mention them. By the very nature of these new digital life forms called digital assets and our relationship with the online providers that host them, in many cases if you don’t pre-plan shutdown of your account – and even that is dependent on if the function is available – your executor may not be able to execute your wishes or gain access. (Facebook offers Legacy Contact, and Google has Inactive Manager for the account holder to identify their wishes for their account upon death.)
If you’ve written a will 20 years ago, should you update it?
Estate planners recommend updating your will when life circumstances change or the law changes. I created a chart that reflects several reasons one should consider updating their will and estate plan, namely: every 5 years; when major life events unfold; when laws change; when you move; when your wishes or intentions change …. or whenever you want.
Looking through your book, it seems like an awful lot of work. How long does it take to do everything you suggest?
There is certainly a lot of information in this book, as I wanted to ensure it covered the basics of will and estate planning addressing the challenges I faced with my mom’s estate. There is much more in the way of estate planning information, as I have only scraped the surface. If you head down a particular path of estate planning, there are many estate practitioner roles including lawyers, tax advisors, gift planners, insurance agents, and wealth and financial planners. There are as many deep and thorough reference books and bodies of knowledge on any of these individual estate planning topics as there are options and solutions for every estate-planning scenario.
As unique as we are as individuals, our preferences and needs will be as equally different. Certainly, a great starting point is a will, but there are other activities to proactively put our affairs in order, such as prepaying for funeral arrangements, setting up a trust, or developing a gifting plan for charity. Just like any project, you might want to start small and build upon your plan as time goes on.
Your Digital Undertaker is available through Amazon, Chapters/Indigo bookstores, or through the website www.yourdigitalundertaker.com.