Photo by Adam Blasberg

City: Vancouver

Age: early 50s

Occupation: I retired from my position as an aerospace engineering officer with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1998 and joined IBM as a technology executive. I retired from IBM in 2017 to start Your Digital Undertaker. As founder, I consult with clients in the death-care and estate planning industries, helping them integrate technology into their work. I’m the author of Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada (FriesenPress, 2019).

Earnings: I’m currently in the startup phase, which means more cash is going out than coming in. Because of my work with my financial advisor, I’ve been able to invest my own capital in the business rather than relying on — and losing control to — outside investors.

Assets and liabilities: A home in British Columbia; a balanced investment portfolio equally distributed between registered and non-registered investments (I’m aiming for, and thus far achieving, a long-term annual return of between 3% and 4% after fees). I also have a line of credit that I use for my business.

I’m on track to retire (again) in my early 60s.

Transformative financial planning

When I first started thinking about retirement planning, I had the typical engineer’s mindset that I’d be able to do it on my own. I read a lot of books but eventually concluded that, while I understood all the components, I lacked the skills to translate those components into a cohesive plan. I cycled through a lot of financial planners over the years before I found my current advisor about a decade ago. Working with her has been like night and day compared to previous advisors, who didn’t take the time to get to know me and to get a holistic picture of my goals and desires.

Our digital estates

It used to be that most executors could perform the role by following a paper trail. The internet is completely transforming estate planning. Today’s executors will have a very difficult time without a clear map and rights to a deceased’s digital assets: everything from emails to loyalty points, photographs, blogs, websites and more. We need to prepare very differently. The death-positive movement — which advocates for more openness, understanding and acceptance of dying, death and grief — hasn’t yet travelled to the estate planning industry. I think we’re in an awareness phase right now about the impact of digital estates.

From employee to entrepreneur

You can’t be an entrepreneur without taking on risk. My advisor gently nudged me away from the very entrenched, very traditional, very conservative financial perspectives I inherited from my parents. I now have a more balanced portfolio (I held mostly GICs before) and take on more risk in my investments.

My skills as an engineer and IT tech executive have been key to making the leap as an entrepreneur. When my mother died without a will, I had to reverse-engineer her entire life in order to get a picture of her assets. That was very difficult, going through a mountain of paperwork. And there was no instruction manual to guide me through the process.

So I gathered up every single thing I learned over the course of dealing with her estate, every question I wish I had asked my mother while she was living. And then I put on my project-manager hat and created the how-to manual I wish I’d had.

Up close and personal

My move from the corporate world to the estate industry was sparked when my mother died without a will. I chose to have her cremated. A few weeks later, I found documents that suggested that she wanted to be buried. That’s haunted me ever since. When you can’t make informed decisions about your loved ones’ wishes, it prolongs your grief and frustrates the administration of the estate.