Who inherits your selfies when you die?

Estate planning isn't just about hard assets anymore. Who will read your email when you die?
Estate planning isn't just about hard assets anymore. Who will read your email when you die? (Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images)

It used to be relatively straightforward to die. You’d leave a few notes behind, tell your relatives where you stashed emergency cash around your house, and a big stack of papers would detail everything that needed to be taken care of during your permanent absence.

But, the Internet ruins everything, and a simple death is no exception. Anyone asked to close off a loved one’s estate now has more to deal with than tax bills and burial plots. There are social media accounts. Cloud storage accounts with thousands of selfies. Don’t even get me started on loyalty points.

Sharon Hartung is trying to change the way estate planning deals with death. The former military engineering officer and tech industry project planner wants the industry to reduce its focus on paper trails and adopt a broader view of what should be included in a typical will.

She’s written two books on the subject, and will soon release another called Digital Executor: Unravelling the New Path for Estate Planning. Hartung spoke to Yahoo Finance Canada about our digital lives and death.

Why is the death industry so mysterious and complicated?

The first time anyone has to deal with the laws and rules about incapacity and death is when a loved one becomes ill or has passed away. It’s an emotionally charged time, and they are likely grieving when they are trying to make important decisions on a project they know nothing about. I encourage people to use technology as a cross-generational conversation opener. It might be easier to ask if someone has set up Legacy Contact on Facebook than opening a conversation about preferred funeral arrangements, given approximately 70 per cent of North Americans use Facebook.

You talk about how anyone planning their estate should build a “death project” and tackle it like a project manager. Why is that important?

We all have a deadline, excuse the pun, but because we don’t know when it is, everything else in life comes first – routine tasks at work and home override dealing with something that you don’t want to happen and that, with some luck, probably won’t occur until some unknown future point in time.

What does someone who dies today need to worry about that they wouldn’t have had to think about pre-Internet?

We no longer have a paper trail to our lives. Consider how many digital accounts you log into to manage your household and personal finances. This is significant, as the executor's role is now dependent on knowing and finding both our physical and digital lives. The digitization of the estate industry was already underway prior to the pandemic, in my opinion, it has now broken through the surface of the general public. Technology is the new player at the estate planning table, and the digitization of the estate industry is well on its way.

How important is it that we tell people what we want to have happen to our digital property? What will become of our selfies and LinkedIn accounts?

Your executor will not know what you have unless you tell them in advance. Your home office is paperless and behind a locked screen. We have wishes and preferences about those assets. Who do you want to receive them? Do you want someone reading your e-mail? Do you want your online account to live forever or not? Who do you want to receive your loyalty points? These wishes and preferences need to be documented and shared. We enjoy technology in our lives, but digital assets become difficult to access after death. This is a new and evolving space, the law needs to catch up, and few service providers offer pre-planning.

Do most people stop and think that the documents executors will be looking for are likely to be digital and inaccessible without passwords, etc?

Today’s home office is a digital home office. Corporate fiduciaries and trust companies are now beginning to realize the impact and haven’t yet raised the alarm. They too rely on the traditional mailbox and paper statements. I’d argue the average age of a trust company client needing administration is muting the real and growing digital impact. I’ve been saying for a while that we need the same spectrum of choices in estate planning for our digital assets as we have for our physical assets, and right now there are not a lot of pre-planning options. I believe this is due to the lack of awareness by consumers and therefore has not yet translated into a marketplace demand.

Finally, you talk about concerns over digital obituaries that a lot of people probably haven’t thought of when they post their uncle's information online. What’s that all about?

In the digital age, the modern-day digitally accessible obituary needs a rethink for privacy, identity theft, and cyber intrusion. We’re told not to click on links in e-mails, not to open attachments from unknown sources, provide personal information to someone we don’t know on the phone or on the Internet, and tune-up our privacy setting for all our online accounts. Why is it we still create online death notices as if we are completing a job application regardless of whether its purpose is a legal declaration or memorial announcement?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.