60-second interview with Sharon Hartung

Sharon Hartung, 30/9/2019

Sharon Hartung TEP is Founder and Principal of Your Digital Undertaker, based in British Columbia, Canada.

What does your firm or organisation do?

Your Digital Undertaker provides specialised consulting and technical management advice to clients. Our consulting service focuses on the information technology and project management aspects of digital asset planning, and the impact of the digital age on estate planning.

The use of a variety of estate professionals, taking in the legal aspects, tax, gift planning, and insurance to support clients in the estates industry has long been recognised, but a newer player is technology. The digital age of estate planning requires new solutions and technology advisors, and to raise the level of awareness I published Your Digital Undertaker - Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada in February.

What has STEP done for you, individually, or as a business?

STEP provides incredible access to a global network of practitioners within the estates industry. This is particularly critical when dealing with a new specialisation or specific issues such as digital assets and technology. A single jurisdiction might not have the critical mass to tackle a problem, whereas STEP has provided a capability to do so. For example, its Digital Assets Special Interest Group, and the Working Group that preceded it, reflects a recognition that the global use of technology will have a dramatic impact on the estate industry.

What is the most important thing STEP does, in your opinion?

I think STEP does several important things. First, I would rank its education top tier in terms of calibre and currency. Secondly, an extension of the commitment to education is complemented by the STEP Journal, and the various Special Interest Groups. The fact that any estate practitioner in the globe can join a Special Interest Group without being a STEP member is very progressive, and recognises that these broader interest areas affect everyone in the industry.

Thirdly, I see STEP tackling the issue of access to information, an issue all practitioners face, through jurisdictionally-oriented conferences, local meetings and guidance documents. For example, in my own region, STEP Canada runs an annual conference to brings practitioners across the country together for education and ideas exchange. During the last year, when the Canadian Tax Services Office changed taxation rules, STEP produced the Tax on Split Income (TOSI) Guide to aid practitioners in interpreting the significant changes these rules brought into effect.

You will be speaking at STEP’s Special Interest Spotlight Sessions 2019 on 22 Nov. What will you be speaking on and what are the main issues?

This year’s Digital Assets spotlight event examines how firms are coping with digital assets as a new asset class. Our panel will discuss emerging use cases of technology-centred solutions that provide assistance in estate administration. To set the context for this spotlight event, my committee colleague, Shelley Rhoads Perry TEP, and I wrote an article for the STEP Journal in July, Bolster your Digital Armoury (login), where we explored new (and existing) digital asset estate administration tools.

Digital assets can be difficult to locate, and in all likelihood are protected by passwords. To compound the issue, the fiduciary access laws in each jurisdiction are new, emergent and in some cases differ significantly. Unlike physical assets where a paper trail may suffice for the executor, digital assets require planning from the testator for them to be transferred successfully.

What do you most like about your job?

I find that being an entrepreneur presents endless possibilities. As my own boss, the door is always open to try new ideas. For example, when I ventured into consulting and wrote a book, I never imagined I would end up podcasting, or have a range of clients as varied as I do today.

.. and what do you feel is most worthwhile?

What is worthwhile is knowing my work has a long-term impact on clients and their families. It can also have an immediate impact, such as getting a phone call from an advisor who’s looking for a quick reference or a link. Being in a position to share guidance, and answer questions, can help family members get back to what’s important, which is spending time with loved ones and dealing with the complexity of planning decisions on their journey at the end of life.

What would you say to a young person thinking of a career in this industry?

I’d say congratulations. In my opinion, this industry is about to be transformed by innovation and technology, and we can expect to see new players, such as technology advisors, with new ideas to offer.

Which sectors are likely to see the strongest future growth, do you think?

In the digital age, we are on the cusp of the largest wealth transfer in history due to the inevitable passing of the baby boom generation. Within the estates industry, companies and advisors will have to grapple with the digital assets class, and deal with consumers who will want all the same ease-of-use that technology has offered every other industry. We can expect to see ‘EstateTech’, along the lines of ‘FinTech’ disruption, eco or alternative funerals, electronic wills, social media trusts, and probate using blockchain.

What about jurisdictions?

Every jurisdiction will need to continue to address its use of technology both personally, professionally, and by business sector. We have spent the last 30 years using and accelerating the application of technology and the internet in our business and personal lives. While we recognise technology touches all of us daily, many people haven’t considered what happens to our digital lives on death. There are a multiplicity of laws that must catch up with our digital footprint - and deal with it.

What trends do you see in the global private wealth sector at the moment?

I can think of a few, starting with the need to deal with digital assets as a new asset class and the transformative impact of blockchain. The estates industry, and the firms that support it, will need to optimise internal processes for cost efficiency, market competitiveness, and customer engagement. This might include software to help with writing wills, dealing with executors, handling physical assets and probate, as well as reducing the burden of the estate administration process from inventory management, to tracking actions, to reporting. Consumers will expect the same ease of engagement as they have when using any other app, social media tool or technological innovation.

What do you feel are the main challenges facing your organisation at the moment, and how will you deal with them?

At this early stage of my organisation, I am feeling all the start-up pains. The good news is that although I might be one of the first in estate tech to approach it from the digital perspective, I am not the first entrepreneur, and I’ve been able to get lots of great advice and coaching to help.

Which social media channels do you use and why?

I use Twitter: @UndertakerTech as the financial, wealth and estate industries are very active there, and it’s really interesting to see what is happening across Canada and elsewhere. I’m on LinkedIn as it’s the main resume and networking forum, and it makes keeping in touch after a conference really easy.

Facebook is as important as having a website, as 70 per cent of North Americans use it, and the people on Instagram also need to be included in estate planning.

Sharon Hartung TEP is the Founder and Principal of Your Digital Undertaker, Canada. She has an MSc in Management of Information Systems, as well as a Project Management Professional certification and is a professional engineer. Sharon serves on the STEP Global Digital Assets Special Interest Group.