Your Digital Undertaker

Who Will Get your Twitter Followers When You Die, and Other Things You Never Considered
By Lisa Sadach

We all know technology changes the way we live, but how does it change the way we die?

In 2017, Sharon Hartung, author of Your Digital Undertaker, faced a difficult and, unfortunately, common situation. The unexpected death of her mother left Sharon as executor of her estate with no will to follow. Hartung, like so many in this situation, was navigating without a roadmap for what her mother’s total assets were, and was fighting through red tape to gain access to digital accounts, loyalty points, online bank statements, and many other items that technology had made convenient while her mother was living, but almost impossible to deal with upon her death.

Even as a former Executive Project Manager for IBM who was used to handling complex issues, Hartung found being an executor overwhelming. “I had no idea how big the job was and how difficult it becomes without a paper trail,” Hartung says. “Even though my mother’s digital footprint was basically just her email account, I still have two years of work before settling her estate.” 

This is far less than what many other executors will face for a loved one who was more tech-savvy than Hartung’s mother. A survey conducted by McAfee in 2013 found that nearly 90% of users had multiple electronic devices and used them to store upwards of $35,000 in assets. Even more recent numbers from Kiplinger.com put this estimate at $55,000 per person. Without the proper planning in place, these assets will be lost either because a loved one does not know of their existence, or will lack the ability to access them.

The stakes become even higher for someone with significant intellectual property such as a photographer, artist, or author where royalties and copyrights will have great value. Traditionally, copyrights would be written into a will, but in this digital age Hartung says estate lawyers need to go further that that. “You need to ask your client where they are storing the draft copy of their book, or music, or photos. Where are they storing the copyright?  Because now you can get copyright in Canada via email, so maybe that’s trapped in their email account.”

Why is Accessing Digital Assets So Difficult? 

While a lack of passwords or a will are considerable barriers, one of the biggest problems, says Hartung, is the way that terms of service are written. “Digital assets are complicated upon death because they’re often governed by the terms of service, you know that thing we scroll through and ignore and then click okay.”

For some items, like airline miles, these can often be transferred upon a person’s death when a beneficiary presents a death certificate. However, other loyalty points and rewards, like Canadian Tire Triangle Rewards points, for example, will expire upon death. 

This might not seem like that great of a loss, but according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there are roughly $16 billion in unused loyalty points in Canada alone. Though these are not all from deceased users, that amount points to a significant wealth component. 

More traditional assets like an online bank account are not exempt from the difficulties presented by terms of service either. In many cases, the terms stipulate that just logging into another person’s account is a violation. 

“Many terms tell you that you cannot even share your password without breaking the terms of service and you could lose access to the asset by allowing your executor to basically hack into your account after you’re dead,” Hartung says.

Because so many of the access and asset loss issues are the result of terms of service, one of the things Hartung helps her corporate clients work on is creating terms that give users more options and flexibility. 

“I use Your Digital Undertaker as a platform to talk to organizations and help them realize that they’ve got to get their policies up to date and they’ve got to talk to clients about this.”

Taking a Project Management Approach to Death 

One of the ways to adapt to how technology is disrupting death is to step back from the emotional side and look at dealing with an estate like project management. “No one likes to talk about death. Less than 50% of Canadians have any kind of will at all, and less than 30% have an up-to-date will, so we are really good at avoiding the topic.” Hartung uses her expertise as a project manager to help individuals see beyond the emotional side of death by giving them a framework to deal with the physical and digital assets left behind.

To emphasize the importance of doing this, Hartung points to the lost bank registry for The Bank of Canada. “If you have a bank account that goes dormant after 10 years, it goes to the Bank of Canada. That list is just growing and growing, so we’re losing physical assets because there is only a digital trail. And if you don’t talk to your executor, how will they know?” 

According to Unclaimedassets.com, there are currently “1.8 million unclaimed bank balances – worth $678 million.” At the time of this writing, only three provinces even have a lost bank registry, so this number is much larger nationwide. 

She encourages executors to ask the hard questions while a loved one is still living. In her book, she gives a checklist of questions including how a person would like their social media accounts handled. Do they want the accounts to remain accessible or be closed down? Who can have access? Will the picture be public?

For example, Facebook offers a Legacy account option where a user can assign a contact person to have access to their account upon death. Facebook Legacy, Hartung suggests, is a good starting point in the conversation with a loved one about their digital assets because it is simpler and more straightforward than many other assets. In November 2019, Twitter announced it was going to remove all inactive accounts, but quickly put a hold on that plan in order to find a way for people to memorialize the accounts of deceased users.

To further reduce the stress of cataloging all of one’s online assets, Hartung recommends starting with what you would consider to be the top three assets that you would be devastated about if they didn’t get passed along. “A top example is unregulated cryptocurrencies. There are quite specific instructions you need to leave because there’s no password reset for unregulated cryptocurrencies.”  Hartung highlights the unique importance of making provisions for cryptocurrencies by referencing the death of Gerald Cotten, the CEO who passed away suddenly without giving anyone the “digital keys” to access over $180 million CDN in clients’ cryptocurrency. 

#DeathPositive Disruption 

Though the numbers related to potential digital asset loss and the new complications surrounding death can be overwhelming, Hartung does see indications that individuals and associations are becoming more aware and are making better provisions for digital assets upon death. 

“I think tech is going to completely disrupt the estate industry as it has for every other industry we’ve seen so far. Millennials are rethinking everything. So, they’re going to want things like electronic wills, wills on the blockchain, and want to use estate firms and law firms that use technology.” 

This shift will be even more dramatic because we are on the verge of the largest wealth transfer in history as baby boomers retire. Banking institutions who have, until now, focused largely on investment and retirement banking are opening philanthropic and trust branches. These new arms of the banking industry will serve to both give individuals additional options for what happens with their assets and also to help institutions keep that wealth in their realm. 

There is also a growing #DeathPositive movement on social media that centers around open communication and celebration of death. This, Hartung predicts, will further help individuals to be more proactive about their digital assets.

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