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Digitization of estate industry: The electronic will changes everything

Thursday, January 07, 2021 @ 2:14 PM | By Sharon Hartung

Sharon Hartung %>
Sharon Hartung
How do we know that the advance care planning, end of life planning, death care, funeral and estate industries are well on their way to being digitized, “uberized,” transformed and innovated in ways we never expected? Because the digital headline hijacking has begun. The dotcom of the estate industry is here because the pandemic has not only jump-started but accelerated the digitization of the industry.

Jurisdictional specific estate legislation and court processes have been evolving to leverage technology, but the pandemic has accelerated the global digitization conversation among practitioners, clients, legislators and the courts. A conversation that starts with the laws and processes that allow specific aspects of legal documents to be digitized, is a thin edge of the digital wedge. Multifaceted digitization is expected from estate industry organizational processes that engage and support clients, court processes and procedures, including new entrants to the fray such as tech entrepreneurs.

With the pandemic driving a renewed interest in technology and digitization, many articles of late have either hinted, examined or nibbled at the edges of the subject or the future disruption anticipated by technology across multiple industries. If we step back and listen to the collective conversational hum of social media and the popping kernels of point-specific solutions, it’s evident that tech incubators are attempting to address gaps in estate industry applications, from memorialization to business process solution refinement through digitization.

Consider the pandemic paradigm as the technological transformative impetus to the legal and estate industries. No firm will be immune to the effect that pervasive digitization will have on business processes and knowledge management hubs. Advisers, clients, tech entrepreneurs and the broader industry are calling now as the time to embrace the digital agenda to improve services, innovate archaic processes and perhaps even leapfrog the competition while improving client expectation management. I’ve written about how the pandemic has accelerated this digital conversation in The Lawyers Daily three-part series Digital assets technology awareness: Adapting to change, Pivoting to new paradigm and Opportunities for estate practitioners.

In 2017, when I was launching my tech management consultancy in estate planning, I wrote a framework paper about the digitization of the estate industry. Being a process (industrial) engineer, it was complete with diagrams, flow charts and explanations about the main business processes within the estate industry that would likely be affected and transformed by information technology and digitization. I had hoped this model would serve as a foundational context for estate practitioners to know where digital change or innovation was occurring in their estate business processes. But alas, other than my esteemed colleagues in the STEP Global Digital Assets Special Interest Group, who were already involved in aspects of digital law reform with model law such as electronic will legislation and what is money discussions in light of blockchain and cryptoassets, the interest among general estate practitioners just wasn’t there. So for the last several years in the specialized space of digital assets in estate planning, I have felt like Bill Murray’s character Phil in Groundhog Day, trying to convince the estate and financial advisory audience that the digital tsunami is coming and advisers need to get ready.

Now, well into the pandemic, it is evident from the questions I get from estate advisers and clients that the digital conversation has dramatically changed. The questions have shifted from the likes of what is a digital asset and why passwords are not the answer in estate planning, to when are we getting electronic wills, what digital tools should we use, and why aren’t estate firms and the court processes more automated?

The digital pandemic shift was never more pronounced than when I presented to advisers at the Canadian Association of Gift Planners (CAGP) summer school event in July 2020. Paul Nazareth, the presentation umpire, pitched me a barrage of questions well beyond digital assets from this highly engaged audience. This estate gift planning audience was keen on talking about electronic will legislation, the role that DIY online will apps play, client expectations in the digital paradigm and the future of tech in the estate world — elements that go well beyond a client’s personal digital assets conversation or how the Internet has broken estate administration. The buzz and acceleration about the topic has been swirling since the onset of the pandemic, and more people have asked for my estate industry digitization paper and insights in the last several months than the early days of 2017.

This is the first of a five-part series.

Sharon Hartung, TEP, is the founder of Your Digital Undertaker®, which provides Digital Executor® webinars and consulting for advisors and clients on the tech management aspects of digital assets in estate planning. She is the author of Your Digital Undertaker — Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada. She is a committee member on the STEP Global Digital Assets SIG.

Photo credit / Khanisorn Chaokla ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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