It’s no secret that the internet has disrupted almost every industry known to man. From investing to tax filing, it has left a trail of both success and failure behind it, with winners and losers in those industries shifting in remarkable ways.
One industry that has been slow to move online is estate settlement. There are many reasons for this, but one that is often overlooked is basic demographics. With the average age of death in the US being 79, and those with wealth typically living even longer, the result is a group of executors who are often over 60 in age and not terribly digitally savvy. As such, estate settlement has experienced very little change thus far during the digital revolution.
The Coming Wave
Simple demographics tell us that there will be a huge increase in executorship in the coming years, spiking as the first of the Baby Boomers, who were born starting in 1946, begin to reach their average life expectancy in 2025.The children of these Boomers, many of whom will serve as executors for their parents, are a much more digitally-savvy group who could approach the process in fundamentally different ways. This is a group that consults Google before they do almost anything and will certainly leverage the treasure trove of free information available online to help them manage this complex process.
The COVID-19 Effect
One of the outcomes of COVID-19 is that older Americans are spending more time online. A lot more time. As they quarantine for personal safety, they’ve been forced to use technology to stay connected with the outside world. Using digital solutions for everything from videoconferencing to food delivery, many who once approached technology with apprehension are now embracing it to solve everyday problems.
Executor.org is one such digital solution. Built with input from attorneys, financial advisors, accountants, funeral directors, grief counselors and realtors, the site is a comprehensive suite of free digital tools to help guide executors through estate settlement. Since the pandemic hit, traffic at Executor.org has jumped more than 70 percent.
Benefits of Digital Tools
The benefit to consumers of better access to information is rather obvious - more informed people tend to make better decisions. More than half of our users are executors for the first time and are starving for information and guidance. To offer that guidance, we ask visitors a series of simple questions to generate a custom executor plan for them. The plan is a digital checklist with explanations of each step, informative videos, helpful spreadsheets, and a data vault to securely store important information.
For many executors, the culmination of their service in the executor role is engaging in estate planning for their own estates. Most see the mess their parents left and commit to doing better - to being more proactive and organized. Our site’s tools are designed to help with this process, too. In fact, preparing your own estate plan is the final step in completing the executor plan for each user on our site.
But the benefits of the executor process going online are not limited to the consumers alone. We spoke with multiple attorneys when we developed the site. According to these estate administration experts, a site like ours, responsibly created and presented, could let them focus on the “legal” aspects of the estate settlement process. This would minimize time spent on non-legal questions like how to manage family relationships or what to do with basements full of personal property, for example.
Finally, lawyers, like those in many other businesses and professions, are relying more heavily on digital leads for client acquisition than ever before. And opportunities exist within the estate administration sphere. Older digital users tend to be more affluent, and therefore represent those who have the greatest need to connect with qualified professionals when serving in the executor role. For example, users coming to Executor.org during the pandemic have substantial estates, with an average estate of $700,000, and with 15 percent indicating estates worth more than $1 million.
Limitations of Digital Tools
The probate process is complex and differs from county to county and state to state. Understanding that every estate is unique and often requires the attention of qualified professionals, we believe responsible digital resources should not encourage a true “do-it-yourself” approach. Instead, they should offer a road map to the process, deliver an understanding of the team of professionals needed, and give insights on how to best utilize professionals to help navigate the process.
Decisions executors make can have a huge financial impact and even create legal liability. Without proper professional counsel, an executor may liquidate an IRA, losing a significant tax benefit. Or, it may not be intuitive for an executor to think to open a bank account for the estate but commingling personal and estate funds could end up getting the executor into a lot of trouble.
Even a digital tool that attempts to offer custom solutions is limited when it comes to answering the myriad of questions executors have related to specific situations in their estates. A website can be a very useful tool but cannot serve the complete needs of executors. It is naturally limited to offering general information and cannot provide personalized legal or tax advice.
Who Will Be the Winners?
This script has yet to be written in terms of how this evolution in estate settlement will impact the profession. Attorneys who embrace technology can reap the reward of working with informed and prepared clients, capturing the next generation of executors who are using digital tools to plan their estates. We are already seeing a growing number of digital-based products selling estate planning tools that play to the tech-savvy consumer. Traditional law firms need to get out in front of these consumers and help them understand that a do-it-yourself, impersonal solution can be far inferior to a customized approach.
We Want Your Feedback
I am a serial entrepreneur who is passionate about helping simplify the complex process of estate settlement because of my own experience with it. When I saw both my parents’ families ripped apart during estate settlement, it inspired me to create Executor.org. That’s why it is currently offered as a public service, with no revenue model of any kind.
While I hope this blog has given you some insight into what’s happening in the field from a digital perspective and stimulated some thought as to how you can participate in the evolution of the field, I also want to use it as a means of getting your feedback. Specifically, we want to understand how a site like Executor.org can better serve your needs or the needs of your clients. One thought is that it could become a shared collaborative workspace for your legal team and clients – allowing you to easily track overall progress, share key dates, and communicate and create a record on specific issues (i.e. executive compensation or finding estate assets) that would be easy to track and find later. This could potentially help create momentum, better organize communications, and help streamline the process.
At Executor.org, we believe that professionals should stay at the center of this process, so we would value any input you’d be willing to share regarding how we could make it a valuable tool for you to assist in the execution of the estate settlement process with your clients, for lead generation for your estate settlement practice, or in any other way.
Please reach out to me at [email protected] to share your thoughts.
Patrick O’Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets. He is also the Executor Adviser on Legacy.com.