Jordan: I was feeling morbid the other day, so I tried to take stock of all the online accounts I’d need someone to manage after my death. I would like to emphasize here the word tried because those accounts include, in part Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Apple Pay Pal, my bank accounts, Netflix, Amazon Prime, various newspapers and magazines, video game accounts, subscription accounts, my rewards points and all my fantasy football teams. Basically, every time I thought of one thing, I remembered three more. It is impossible. Even if somebody wanted to do this for me, I don’t know if they’d be able to. And yes, a lot of my online accounts would probably be fine just fading away after I died. And that probably applies to many of you. But for all of us, a lot of them would be devastating to lose. We keep our family pictures in the Cloud now, we save correspondence with some of our dearest friends in email and in social media DMs. And of course, a lot of these places and not just banks have our money sitting in accounts, and that’s real money, and someone needs to get it when we’re gone. I’m left where I started. How do I even go about this when the accounts I use online change and grow every day? And the people who are caring for their aging parents who have signed up for who knows what on the Internet over the past 20 years, how did they go about having that conversation and getting organized? Who takes care of us online when we’re gone? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Sharon Hartung is the author of Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada. Hi Sharon.
Sharon: Hi, Jordan. Thanks for the opportunity this morning.
Jordan: Well, thanks for agreeing to join us. We were kicking around the idea of this story for a couple of days and we wanted to start by asking you just– because we were trying to figure this out. How has death changed? And what we do after death changed over the past couple of decades?
Sharon: Well, I look at it obviously from the technology lens, which is where my background is, but technology and the Internet, given we’ve had the Internet for now 30 years, arguably used it pretty extensively for the last 10, has really affected our death in our state plans and simply by the fact that we now have a new set of assets called digital assets. That’s our email. And also the role of the executor has fundamentally changed by the way we use technology every day with all the institutions we deal with. Now there’s a third element, which is the larger transformation, the death positive community, which has been enabled by social media, and our use of technology. I think we’re going to see the same kind of transformation we saw in Fintech in the estate and death care worlds in the, what I refer to is estate tech
Jordan: interesting. So maybe begin, I guess, by clarifying a couple of those terms. So digital assets refers to email and anything else.
Sharon: Yeah, I like to think of digital assets simply as our money, our memories and our records. But they’re just in digital format instead of paper, simply an electronic record. If you want a clinical definition, you know, the uniformed Conference Law of Canada, which has proposed legislation for the provinces, says it’s an electronic record. The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners considers that our digital assets have some of the same characteristics as our physical assets, like we have, financial value. And we have sentimental or emotional value, which is helpful when you look at it from an estate planning perspective. But it’s simply our money, our memories and our records.
Jordan: Give me an example of what can happen to our digital assets if we don’t plan for them before we die.
Sharon: So let’s start with our physical assets first, I look at the Bank of Canada lost bank registry as a way of saying, we lose physical assets, even even though in theory we shouldn’t. And one of the reasons we lose them is perhaps we haven’t told our executor we had a bank account or a financial institution somewhere, and the number of lost physical assets being these investment accounts or bank accounts is actually growing. So in the digital age, we now do everything online. We pay our bills online, we deal with our finds and financial institutions online. So the idea that we would lose assets becomes more relevant because if there’s only a digital trail and we haven’t left any indication to our executor, we might lose them as well. Now these digital assets also have financial value. If you consider your loyalty points, a lot of people collect loyalty points for a special family vacation or something specific. These have financial value, and they could end up being into the thousands of dollars. So from an estate planning point of view, if we had a bank account with $1000 in it, you know we wouldn’t want to lose that. So why should we dismiss these digital assets that could have that kind of value as well? Now there’s a sentimental aspect of this as well. We used to have physical photo albums, and now we do everything on our phones or we save our pictures in the Cloud. You know, we can print them off, and we should. But we need to consider the fact that we could lose access to those photos. There are some court cases, there’s one in the United States in New York and one in the UK where people had to go to court to argue with the service provider to get access to those digital memories and those digital photos.
Jordan: Are there actually any clear policy guidelines on that? You know, have governments anywhere, said that yes, family members should be allowed to access digital accounts? Or wre we fighting all this on, like a case by case, provider by provider, family by family basis?
Sharon: Well, let’s let’s parse it apart in this way. So everything that happens upon death is affected by laws, and in Canada, those laws are provincially based. So we have laws that tell us if the will is valid. We have laws that tell us what happens if we don’t have a will. And there are new laws that are required to deal with our digital lives because we haven’t had the these kinds of assets in the past. Every jurisdiction, which means every country or territory, has different laws too. What happens in the United States with respect to digital assets, will happen differently than will happen in Canada. But the biggest barrier on death when it comes to digital assets relates to the online companies that we deal with. So when we sign up for an online account, we go through that litany of terms that we scroll through, and then we clicked the button. Those terms are our agreement or a contract with that service provider about our use of that particular asset. There’s a very interesting study out of Queens Mary’s University in the UK, where they looked at a number of Cloud providers and online providers, and they found that 85% of technology providers had no clear policy on what was gonna happen upon one’s death, and for the 15% that did, most of them prevented you from transferring the asset.
Jordan: But at least those places have policies. I mean, I’m fascinated by the 85% of online companies that didn’t in that study. I mean, do they not have lawyers who write these things thinking about that? It just seems like maybe it’s because we haven’t passed through a generation of Internet users dying off that we just haven’t considered it
Sharon: Absolutely. Being a new set of assets and arguably really using the Internet over last 10, 15 years, we haven’t really– we have just haven’t considered it. Now, when you look at statistics about how many Canadians actually have a will done, Angus Reid tells us, 2018 study, that less than 50% of Canadians have a will, and less than 35% of Canadians have an up to date will. So we’re already avoiding the topic itself, being our estate plans and our wishes upon death or even getting our affairs in order.
Jordan: Right, well we don’t like to talk about it.
Sharon: We don’t like to talk about it. So people are just unaware. I think we’re in awareness phase of this particular issue where we just need to recognize that we do things differently today online with everything about our personal lives and that effects what will happen on death.
Jordan: What about the straight up, valuable parts of digital assets that are supposed to be ultra secure? Because we’ve covered Bitcoin ransom and topics like that on this podcast in the past, and you know, their selling point is that nobody but you can ever get at them. And they can often be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. What’s the plan there?
Sharon: That’s really interesting, because for many, if you deal with the bank or financial institution and you lose your password, you go back into the financial institution with your identification and you get yourself authenticated and you get your access back. With these decentralized crypto currencies in the way that they being architected, if you lose that private key, no one’s– including yourself– is getting access. There’s no central authority to go to, or someone you can call. So from that perspective, somebody who wants to make sure that their crypto currencies get passed along, are gonna have to write down some instructions for their executor and save that particular private key in a manner that secure so the executor can get access and transfer that particular crypto currency. Now things may change and evolve as this industry becomes regulated, we may still continue to have–
Jordan: I was going to say, that seems like an awfully precarious position to be in with, like a serious amount of money.
Sharon: Right. Now, one can’t say if the decentralized cryptocurrencies will continue. Perhaps they will, and at the same time we may have a regulated crypto currency kind of token system that may get applied. As we heard, Facebook announced that they had plans for Libra. Maybe other kinds of currencies come in play. But that’s where consumers, as we become more and more aware of this issue where we start to have demands about, I do want to be able to transfer my loyalty points. I think this is where consumers, as they become more informed about the topic, will start demanding those kinds of preplanning functionalities that they can set up in advance. One way I like to think of that is, it’s no different than beneficiary designations that you would have for your insurance policies or you’re registered plans. But what will be different here is the fact that you will actually have to make sure you keep them current so that whoever is identified as the beneficiary or the recipient of that particular token product will will actually be the right person that you want to get that.
Jordan: Right, cause that was also gonna be a big question of mine is, isn’t there a way to make all of this easier? Like just what you’ve described over the first 10 minutes of our conversation, seems incredibly intimidating because I basically have to figure out a plan for each of the digital assets that I have, whereas you know, one of the things that made me able to create a will, cause I knew I should is like, okay, I will leave everything that I have to this person. That’s it. I’m done. Um, can we figure out a way to do that digitally?
Sharon: I think we can. So often when people ask me, obviously we’re busy. We’re overwhelmed. We barely make a list of our physical assets that aids the estate planning process. So what I typically recommend to people is consider the top three digital assets that you would be devastated that couldn’t be transferred or memorialized in the way you wanted. And for some people, that’s their social media account. For some people, that is their YouTube channel because they’re getting ad revenue. So, you know, get those three things listed. Get to a lawyer, get your well done, build a plan around those three things. There are some emerging estate tech entrepreneurs that are coming out with solutions that do not require you to have a password, where you create an inventory of the online accesses you have, and with the proper documentation and APIs and agreements, they can transfer them successfully. Those are being piloted and initially rolled out so we may see an emergent kind of technology in that space. Think of this as a continuum of– password managers are for the living. We use them obviously for cyber security reasons. They need to evolve over time to deal with regulators in the law so that we can potentially use a different kind of password manager upon death.
Jordan: And how do you manage to keep all of that organized? Cause just thinking about my own digital assets, I acquire new ones, depending on what you want to define as new ones, you know, weekly. New apps become a part of my life, and I set up new accounts and I curate them and often those involve me loading some amount of funds onto them, or at least setting up for various subscriptions. And there’s no way I’m gonna go and re-update my will every time I do that.
Sharon: No. And that’s where the state lawyer can really help you. Because the will often deals at the macro level. It will give authority to an executor to deal with your entire digital asset inventory. It will give direction on the significant asset items, and there’s other mechanisms and ways that you could work with a lawyer to be more specific. So if you have a YouTube channel that you feel is that has a lot of value to it and you want to transfer, the lawyer can give you some recommendations on how to set it up in a way, perhaps a separate company, etcetera, to deal with it. So the will tends to, if you want to look at it, tends to deal with the macro level, the permissions, the general guidance. Certainly, password managers help in creating that inventory. As you know, when you set up a YouTube channel, it involves, you know, five other accounts and something else at the same time. And then printing out just the inventory without the password so the executor has a fighting chance to know what you have as a beginning starting point.
Jordan: We have on aging population, as we’ve also covered on this podcast. And one of the conversations that I don’t know if we regularly have with our parents is, first of all about what we should do with their stuff after they pass. But I mean, introducing them to digital asset management sounds like a difficult topic. How do you broach that conversation?
Sharon: You’re absolutely right. Digital asset is not a user friendly word. That’s why I talk about it as our money and our memories and our records. The Gen Xers and Gen’s Zeds have long been helping the Baby Boomer parents with our technology. Who hasn’t got that phone call about a setting up a printer or getting access to something? I think the simpler conversation is something that perhaps of the Baby Boomers all use. They have email and given 70% of North Americans use Facebook, they probably have a Facebook. I think the conversation concert simply by saying, hey mom, dad, and uncle, beloved one. Do you realize that Facebook has a legacy contact that you can set someone else? You can appoint someone who can take care of your Facebook account, you know, and that could lead to a conversation, do you want your Facebook to stay up and running for a while, or do you want it shut down? And then maybe you could lead into the more awkward conversations to say, hey, if you would like me to be your legacy contact, do you intend for me to be your executor? And then lied that to the conversation about what else that you would like to know as an executor. In the digital age, most of us don’t really understand what the rule of executor is. In fact, I had no idea until my mom died without a will about the big job of the executor. I’d been managing large projects at IBM. I didn’t realize how significant a project it was, that you basically we start from scratch and don’t know much. And so you get online and you try to figure figure it out. What I’ve learned about the executor role after they deal with the important funeral and celebration of life, the most significant task they have to do is try to figure out everything you own on. We’re talking your physical assets, your coin collections, your bank accounts, what bills you’ve been paying, when was the last time you did taxes? And now your digital life. And the way that most executors traditionally have been starting that role, even corporate executors, is they’ll go into someone’s home office and look for the printed statements in the mail. And, as you know, in today’s home office, we are faced with the lock screen. So we’ve really thwarted in the last, in our use of the Internet, we’ve thwarted the role of the executor to begin their job. So the best thing you can do for your executor is sit down with them, walk through a list of your– what you own and assets you own, and for your digital ones, the top three that that are really significant to you, whether that’s your family photos or your, you know, maybe you have decentralized crypto currencies, who knows, or maybe just even your email, and make some provisions around them, or at least get them identified.
Jordan: Finally, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the death positive movement and how it is changing how we remember each other on the Internet. Because a couple of my friends who are no longer with us passed before Facebook started their tributes, and I wish I could still access those photos. But I can’t. Can you explain a little bit about how our outlook on death has changed through technology?
Sharon: As I researched this book, I certainly came across the death positive community, #DeathPositive. And it is a community that is trying to have a more open conversation about death, and through that open conversation, it’s starting to transform and challenge some of the traditional ways that people have ritualized or celebrated people’s lives or considered other ways that we should be taking care of the grieving, taking care of the people that are taking care of the dying, and then honouring the dying wishes for those around us and social media has really fuelled and help those communities communicate and share information around the globe. Certainly when you look on Twitter, for example, at the #DeathPositive, you will see a large community in the UK, the palliative community. You’ll see that in the US and now in Canada. So if you look at the new role of end of life doula or death doula, they consider working with the families and the dying persons to make sure that they have quality of life at the end of life. Whether that is a palliative care whether that means dying at home, and honouring their wishes in the in the last weeks or months of their life.
Jordan: So what, then, are one or two things that someone much like myself, who has been been listening to you and realizing just how much I’ve not done to prepare my digital assets for my eventual death, what can those people do right now that’s maybe not too intimidating, but can at least start to get our digital affairs in order?
Sharon: Well, the good news is the several things that you could do are going to sound somewhat familiar, which is helpful when we deal with something new like technology. So the first thing is, if you don’t have a will, seek some legal advice and get a will so that it can cover your digital and non digital life. And the importance of that, obviously is it allows you to identify the loved ones that you want to take care of. But it also gives the executors powers to deal with your digital life and your non digital life. If you have a will, go back to the lawyer who created your will and asked them to update it to include your digital life. I think the other thing that’s pretty critical is preparing the executor. If you haven’t had a conversation with the person you’ve identified as your executor, certainly have it. Create a list of what you own physically on those top three digital assets that you’d be devastated if you couldn’t transfer. And then more simply, I think one of the best things you can do for your family is leave memories for your loved ones. Now I mentioned earlier we used to have physical photo albums. Now all our photos or digital, there are things we can do. The technology providers do allow family sharing in some cases, set up family sharing, so you don’t have to worry. Leave some photos on an unencrypted disk drive or device, email them to somebody else or print them out from time to time. So there are things that we can do to leave some of those memories along as well.
Jordan: Sharon, thanks for all your help on this today.
Sharon: Thanks Jordan.
Jordan: Sharon Hartung, author of Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada. That was The Big Story for more from us, including lots of other episodes that are not that macabre, which is a word I’ve always wanted to say on a podcast, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, scroll down until you find one that you like. And if you want to talk to us and ask us if we’re feeling okay, you can find us @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter and you can subscribe for free and you can rate and you can review wherever you get your podcasts on Apple, Google, Stitcher or Spotify. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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