This article appears in the February 2021 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.
Covid-19 has changed the way we go about our lives — and changed the way we go about planning for death.
“The entire estate industry is becoming digitized because of the pandemic. The use of the internet has transformed our ability to do estate planning,” said Sharon Hartung, author of Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada.
Ari Brojde, founder and CEO of Montreal-based Estateably, a web-based platform that digitizes estate administration, said signing wills in person became a challenge during lockdowns. Most Canadian jurisdictions require two witnesses to be in a room with a testator when a will is signed, although many provinces began temporarily allowing remote signatures during the pandemic.
Brojde hopes provinces enshrine this provision when the pandemic subsides. (That hope is already coming to fruition: British Columbia, for example, announced in June 2020 that it will allow the remote witnessing of wills going forward.)
While the legal landscape is embracing virtual reality, online companies such as Estateably, Willful and Epilog aim to make work easier for estate planners and executors.
“Tech incubators globally are ramping up with innovative solutions for every aspect of the estate business process,” Hartung said.
These new companies strive to make estate planning and administration faster than in the paper world, where “there is a lot of tedious, repetitive form-filling,” Brojde said.
Brojde pointed to eState-Planner, a platform developed by Toronto-based estate planning law firm Hull & Hull LLP, as an example of technology that can help build a client’s estate plan easily and affordably. “[eState-Planner] was originally an in-house tool. Now it is used by over 200 law firms,” Brojde said.
Many online options for estate planning focus on one element of the estate plan. Willful, for example, enables users to create customized legal documents, while NoticeConnect matches public legal notices with their intended audiences.
To navigate the new landscape, Hartung recommended due diligence: “There is a myriad of tech solutions for every aspect of the estate planning and administration business processes, so which solutions to use or what to recommend to clients will depend on your business requirements.”
Brojde suggested taking stock of the tools that can support your clients. “Look at this through a lens of optimizing service. Make sure vendors take security and privacy seriously,” he said. “You’re going to see a proliferation of different service providers. Don’t lock yourself in.”
Also ensure any services you use have an open architecture, Brojde advised.
“This is tech-speak for whether or not the software program can be integrated with and communicate with other pieces of software that may already be in use by the advisor,” he said. “This is important so the advisor does not need to duplicate effort and data entry among their various systems.”
Digital asset inventory list
The contemporary estate plan includes more than property, mutual funds and jewellery; it includes digital assets as well.
Digital assets fall into three broad categories: social, sentimental and financial. Red Seal Financial Ltd., a financial advisory and insurance firm in Edmonton, compiled a list of the most common digital assets, including:
- Email credentials
- Device credentials (e.g., for laptops and cellphones)
- Social media
- Digital accounts for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Sony PlayStation and other services
- File storage services
- Digital photographs
- Subscription services, such as Netflix
- Financial tools, including PayPal
- Online shopping accounts
- Loyalty rewards for travel, fuel purchases and credit cards
- Retail points programs, such as PC Optimum
With the world going digital, the information you need to build and administer an estate plan will increasingly be found online, said Sharon Hartung, author of Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada.
“We no longer have a [physical] paper trail to our lives. With our new digital footprints, there is often only a digital trail to our entire lives,” Hartung said. “In the past, the executor would go into our paper-based home office and find the information to do their jobs. Today, they are likely [to be] faced with a locked digital screen.”