Book Review: Your Digital Undertaker by Sharon Hartung

by | Jan 15, 2020

I thought when I picked up Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada, that I’d learn more about how digital assets are treated after death, how to plan properly for my own digital assets and to guide clients in planning for theirs, and trends to watch for as the legal landscape changes. 

Lest you think I’m about to complain about this book, I did learn all of that. But I was delighted to learn much more, and in such a practical, applicable way. Organizing your own affairs, preparing your executor, and even preparing to be an executor are enormous, complicated topics, made more so by the fact that each province and territory has its own laws. Sharon Hartung has done a remarkable job of articulating the complexity while still delivering a universally useful guide that covers much more than just the digital aspects of death.

In addition to her simple and personal writing style, Hartung’s particular strength is in applying her project management lens to each part of the process, from what an executor is dealing with in the first few days after death, to pre-planning and pre-paying your own funeral, preparing an asset and account inventory for the benefit of your future executor, final and estate taxes, and winding up the estate and making distributions to beneficiaries. The framework for each step follows this simple structure: 

  1. Scope: Why are you doing this? 
  2. Options and Trade-Offs: What are the pros and cons?
  3. Preferences and Costs: What do you need and what’s it going to cost you? 
  4. Procurement of Professional Services: Your body can’t bury itself!
  5. Risks: What are the risks? What are the backup plans? 
  6. Communication: It’s on a need-to-know basis and someone needs to know!

Even better, Hartung includes multiple checklists designed to either guide you through the decision-making structure, or – my personal favourite – measure your progress against a benchmark for success that you set for yourself!

Who should read it?

Everyone. Every single person old enough to own assets and execute a Will should read this book with a pencil in hand and a running list of to-dos beside them.

If you only have time to read one chapter:

Of course, read Chapter 7: Death with a Side of Digital. This is where Hartung outlines the many ways our ever-expanding digital lives are already making estate planning and administration so much more complex, and where most readers will come away a little surprised and a lot galvanized to get organizing.

If you only have time to read one paragraph:

“Although you may not know much about funerals, wills and filing taxes at death, there are plenty of qualified estate professionals who can explain what you need to know in simple terms, provide you with options, and communicate the issues and risks involved. That said, you’ll need to be actively involved throughout and be able to engage effectively with the estate professionals you hire. This means asking plenty of questions and taking lots of notes because, while you will be dealing with many professionals, you will be the project manager, not them. You may, as many people do, expect a legal advisor to draft a suitable will, with you playing a passive role in developing it. This is not desirable. You might have checked the box, and have a piece of paper called a will, but if you are deeply engaged in the process with the legal advisor, by asking questions, researching, and doing homework, it can result in estate planning documents that better align with your ultimate wishes, intentions and objectives.”

(Chapter 2: Getting Your Affairs in Order – Building Your Death Project in the Digital Age, page 32, emphasis mine)

If you only have time to read one sentence:

“A will, after all, is just a piece of paper until you die; how it survives your death is what really matters.”

(Chapter 4: Your Digital Life Needs a Will, Too, page 63)

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