Today’s episode is about digital estate organizing. I welcome Kate Hufnagel, also known as the “Digital Wrangler,” to discuss how to make it fun and hip to talk about getting your affairs in order. Kate specializes in educating individuals and families on modern-day estate planning, and how technology can make it a more complex process.
Tune in as Kate shares her high-tech know-how and passion for financial literacy. You will hear valuable tips to help you and your loved ones navigate the difficult conversation of planning for the unthinkable.
Key points Kate and I address in this episode include:
I know this is a difficult topic and one most people would prefer to avoid. However, planning for the future is essential to living an organized life. Not only will Kate’s tips make your life easier, but they will also take an immense burden off your family during a challenging time.
Kate Hufnagel, Digital Estate Organizer
Website - Kate Hufnagel | The Digital Wrangler
Facebook: The Digital Wrangler
YouTube: The Digital Wrangler
Episode 21: Start Talking With Your Aging Parents Now
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Intro: Welcome to A Pleasant Solution, Embracing an Organized Life. I'm your host, certified life coach, professional organizer and home life expert Amelia Pleasant Kennedy. I help folks permanently eliminate clutter in their homes and lives. On this podcast, we'll go beyond the basics of home organization to talk about why a clutter-free mindset is essential to an aligned and sustainable lifestyle. If you're someone with a to-do list, if you're managing a household and if you're caring for others, this podcast is for you. Let's dive in.
Amelia: Welcome to Episode 26, Digital Estate Organizing with Kate Hufnagel. I'm so excited to introduce you to today's guest. Kate Hufnagel is an estate organizer who's on a mission to make it fun and hip to talk about getting your affairs in order. She educates individuals and families on what makes up modern-day estates, how technology is a complexity multiplier, and how laws and privacy policies which we love when we're alive, work against us when we're not. After earning two degrees in engineering, Kate spent 25 years in the high-tech world testing satellites the size of school buses, leading recall programs and overseeing software development projects. She spent the majority of her career in the intelligence community and has also worked for a communications company, a company known for their green tractors and NASA.
Today, Kate helps individuals and families prepare for the taboo topic of the inevitable and the unthinkable. Kate is a bonus mom who's also passionate about financial literacy and finding the best donut in the world. As the digital Wrangler, Kate applies her high tech know-how and difficult life lessons learned to helping people leave behind their greatest legacy, a well-organized estate.
I encourage you to listen in and implement two tips you'll learn within the week ahead. Make sure you're following Kate too. It's important to keep this work top of mind.
Amelia: I am so happy to welcome today as a guest, Kate, aka the digital Wrangler and I met via NAPO, which is the National Association of Organizing and Productivity Professionals and of course over social media. She and I have been chatting back and forth. We have similar interests and kind of are aligned in many ways and I love that we're also both dedicated volunteers within the NAPO space. So welcome to the podcast Kate.
Kate: Thank you so much Amelia. I'm just so honored and grateful that you asked me to be a guest on your podcast. I'm looking forward to our conversation today, especially since it's going to be about a topic that not many people like to talk about.
Amelia: For sure. And I'm all about encouraging the hard conversations and the sticky spaces in home life, so we've got to prepare whether we like it or not. So one question I really like to ask my guests in the beginning is, what did organization look like for you during your childhood?
Kate: Okay, I wish my mom was right here with me because she loves telling the story of when Kate was in middle school and had a locker. I wasn't sick very often, but when I was, I usually was sick in a big way, meaning I was missing multiple days of school. And so back then, this was in the eighties, the teachers would then send all the plans down to the office and then the front office would then get a custodian to go into my locker. Well, my mom also at the time was on the board of education and any time that she was at the school, whether it was for her personal reason, aka me and my siblings or for like board meetings and stuff, she would always run into the custodians and they would literally run up to her and just say, you know, Mrs. Hufnagel, your daughter Kate has the most organized locker. And it was true, like I had, back then we had to cover our school books in brown paper bags. So let's say it was like my science book, I would write in a green marker science and then I had a green notebook for science class. So everything was color-coordinated and then very neatly organized in the locker. So the custodians loved going into my locker.
Amelia: I absolutely love that story and identify with it because one, my mother was a teacher, so all throughout elementary school she was kind of around in our space and also school just ended for us and I have a middle schooler and when I picked her up at the end of the year, the teacher or the head of school said something to me like we helped her clean out her locker and it was just okay, meaning not quite the Kate version of color coordinated, everything in line. I'm sure my youngest in particular had the bottom part of the locker was probably a little untidy and that's okay we all have our systems, let's call them that.
Kate: Yeah, absolutely. I wasn't forced to have that system. That was something that I came up with all on my own.
Amelia: Exactly, which is a great start to our conversation today because you really have made sort of inroads your own pathway into technology, digital organizing, estate planning. Just for a moment, would you tell us about your kind of journey to this field and then we'll kind of dive into specific aspects of technology that you work on or problems you see with clients?
Kate: Well, Amelia, thank you for that question. I don't think many people have actually asked me that before. So I have a couple of degrees in engineering and spent about 25 years working in big tech, software development, infrastructure, all kinds of technical solutions like that. And then on top of that I spent a fair bit of my career in the intelligence community. So for lack of a better phrase, I just, even I joke with my husband like I'm just a dork. I'm this engineering nerd kind of person and have from a career perspective spent so much time working in the digital space. Layered on top of that, I didn't get married until last year at the age of 48. So I spent the majority of my adult life being fiercely independent and self-sufficient. And during that process I had started to actually, when I had my first grownup job in 1998 and read a book by Susie Orman, really back then, that was when I started thinking about how do I make sure that the financial legacy that I am creating is actually going to be accessible to my loved ones.
What I quickly learned is that the financial legacy is actually just a small piece because I now look at the legacy that one leaves behind, if I don't want to be a burden in the afterlife to my loved ones. So having that philosophy merged with my high-tech digital background, I feel has really uniquely positioned me in this space of how can people either utilize technology or how can people just be aware of how to use technology and or how can technology potentially work against you when you are no longer in the position to help your loved ones? I myself, just in the last 10 years have had a couple of different medical emergencies, some life threatening, some not. And so that has also helped me reframe and focus on, okay, things could actually really go sideways. And I'm only, and I use air quotes, at the time in my "thirties or forties." I'm not in my eighties yet, but there are things that between my life experience, my former career, I think I bring all of that to the table in working with my clients.
Amelia: Yeah, that's so fascinating and I heard two points there that I just want to shine a light on and the first is that financial literacy and preparation for the future is something we've sort of gotten comfortable with as a society, but now there's this whole looming world that we don't really think that much about. We participate in the technology space, we use technology in our lives, it's such a benefit, but we're not really as a society forward thinking or where that data and information can go and how accounts can end up. And we don't sort of face it until later on when something unfortunate may happen. And the second part is, and I've shared on an earlier podcast episode, I believe you and I connected over appendicitis as well, and I was in the hospital for a couple of days and now I need to get surgery to have my appendix removed.
They say to you like, bring your power of attorney, bring all of your documents to the surgery because who knows what can happen. And of course all will be well, but it is an opportunity even when you're young and healthy to be thinking about what's happening behind the theme in my digital and technological life if something was to happen. So I often deal, have conversations, and connections with clients. When they have lost a loved one or maybe have an inherited object or clutter from them and I know what it's like when we're in grief, when we're in loss, we're operating from an emotional space and our logical brain isn't always online, so we're not able to make those rational decisions as quickly or as easily. So talk to me about online accounts or digital footprints. How are these aspects of technology making things more difficult to close out someone's estate?
Kate: So let's talk about devices. I know your listeners can't see me, but I'm holding up my phone. That is our lifeblood these days. And if a loved one is not able to access your device, this has the potential to make things so much more difficult for your loved ones. I've had people tell me stories of going to the director of a funeral home to literally beg to get access to a loved one's body so that they could get a fingerprint. If you are in a hospital and you are on a ventilator, facial recognition will not work for a loved one to hold up your phone. So ensuring that someone will be able to access your devices, whether it's your phone, your computer, or your laptop, is in my mind number one. And if you think about a lot of our financial accounts, our medical accounts, whenever you do have them access them, more than likely because you are practicing good digital hygiene, you have multifactor authentication set up. So a text is going to go to that phone.
So you want, again to think about how do I make things easier for the loved ones that I am going to leave behind? Number two tip or number two challenge of technology is email. We are now in the day and age where we're receiving very few, if any, paper bills in the mailbox. I don't know how your neighborhood is situated, Amelia, but I've got to walk four or five houses down to this bank of mailboxes. So whether your mailbox is literally at the end of your driveway or something that you pass every single day that you walk into your home. If something were to happen to you, your loved one is not going to have a physical reminder that a bill needs to be paid. So if those notifications are coming into your inbox, you need to make sure that your loved ones either have access to your email now or if you're not comfortable with that, making sure that you're leaving those breadcrumbs or those instructions behind so that they know how to then access your email.
So if you just think about those two scenarios, access to your device and access to your email and if you have a plan in place for those two, then that will be a big step forward in making things easier and simpler and later for your loved ones because like you said, they're going to be grieving. They're going to just be trying to figure out how to get through or at least how to manage your loss. You don't want to add all of these other technical complexities on top of that.
Amelia: For sure and again, I could provide multiple stories for that in my own life. I've seen it be true very much so, even something as simple as trying to recycle a device with that two-factor authentication. And if you don't log out and you have to send the code, it can get really complicated and keeping track as someone who manages multiple households, I'm a caregiver for my mother who's living with dementia and I have the right to manage her affairs. Always kind of looking for those loose strings and things that one may have missed is such valuable information. So I love that in terms of access to devices and access to email, so many of my listeners are in the position of also kind of leading their homes or leading multiple households like I am and they're really aiming to simplify things. They're beginning to share the load of household management with their partners. So having those sticky conversations where needed, what are a few other small actions that listeners can take today to make sure their household continues to operate as smoothly as possible? Should a death or incapacitation, something like that, a disruption occur?
Kate: Yeah, again, another incredible question. I am chief of household operations myself and five years ago when my husband was taking me to the ER at 11 o'clock at night and I was in extreme distress, literally in my mind I'm thinking, oh my gosh, is he going to be able to pay the bills if things go sideways. So here are a couple of tips. I've already kind of talked about access to the phone. Also in my mind, it is important to understand what bills are being paid. So however that looks like for you, whether that means you have a list that you have written out on paper and it is in a drawer that your spouse knows about, or maybe the two of you are very tech savvy and you have a Google document with all of that information, it is so important today, whether we're paying bills like mortgage or rent or utilities or even things like our streaming services, which we have so many of, if your partner is going to then be handling all of those things, you want to make sure that again, you're setting them up for success, you're making things easier for them.
And that unfortunately also applies after we pass away or we're incapacitated in the hospital. So for your listeners who have a Facebook account and or an Apple ID account, I strongly encourage you to take the 30 seconds to designate a legacy contact with both of those accounts. This way you are then telling Facebook and you're telling Apple, I am granting permission to so and so and Apple and Facebook are legally obligated then to give that person access to your account in the unfortunate situation. Google also has a similar feature. Google's feature is called inactive account manager. It's extremely robust, it will take more than 30 seconds. And that's simply because Google lets you specify up to 10 different people for a variety of different data associated with your Google account. So for instance, you can grant someone access to your Gmail, but you may not want to give them access to, say to your YouTube channel.
So Google's is far more robust, but I ultimately also encourage your listeners to designate their inactive account manager for their Google account and then legacy contacts for Facebook and Apple. And why is that important? Well, Facebook in particular, I've been speaking a lot lately in public forums and in the last six months I've had two people cry in front of strangers when sharing these stories about the challenges associated with Facebook. So it is a very emotional account for individuals, even though it may not be worth any money, this emotional value behind the Facebook, behind the photos being saved to the Apple Cloud account is something that I have witnessed be even more important to people than the financial aspects of a loved one's life.
Amelia: Yeah, I can see it already. I actually want to go back to the first thing that you mentioned, which is kind of the accounting and sort of budgeting and making sure bills are transparent for a partner because I eat an electronic document, but I'm sure my husband would love to have access to that and may feel lost without it if something were to change in our household, because I am the primary person who manages our budget and finances. I find myself being hypervigilant, so we have three children, when people sign up for a subscription through Apple, let's say, and it's a monthly fee or a yearly fee. I find myself furiously like adding them to the spreadsheet because those are things that I think are quick, simple decisions that another family member could make. And then it's added in there, it's added up and it's easy to lose track of all those minor details.
So yes, the big three in terms of Google, Apple, Meta, Facebook, all of those things. Great, great suggestion. So let's go to the hard conversation topic. Because to be fair, not everyone is ready, they're not in an emotional space, they're not always eager to dive in, whether it's with their partner or with extended family or a loved one to talk about digital hygiene as you like to call it and setting a family member up for success, not to be a burden. So on episode 21 of my podcast, I'm actually, if you go back and take a listen, I'm encouraging listeners not to wait on these hard conversations, really to start sooner rather than later because then you have the time to prepare, you have the time for the feelings and emotions in order to save ourselves from future headaches or heartaches. What suggestions do you have to approach this traditionally taboo kind of topic with a partner or parent, etcetera?
Kate: Amelia, your episode on how to start talking to people about that was so brilliantly well done. I hope that I can add onto that because this is a very difficult topic for so many people to talk about. And in my view, there's never going to be a good time to start the conversation. So you may be telling yourself, oh I'm going to wait, I'm going to wait until they're in a better head space or I'm in a better head space or we're going to wait until the kids are older. There is, in my view, never going to be a good time. So that means for better or for worse, we have to somehow create that opportunity to have that conversation. Now in my view, it is important to meet people where they are, but at the same time you also need to balance that with your own experiences and your own perspectives.
For me, especially since I became a bonus mom later in life, what I've learned is I can't always put everyone first because then what that means when it comes to talking about this topic, the topic's never going to be discussed. So I try to make it as lighthearted and easygoing as possible. My dad who's now in his eighties likes to joke about, oh well when the time comes and I get hit by the ice cream truck and I'm like, okay dad, like I love you so much. So with my own parents, I just mentioned my dad, both my parents, I'm still very blessed that they are both with us today and they have had their own medical emergencies within the last 12, 13 months as well. And it is difficult. They have a different perspective, their own life experiences and just some generational viewpoints as well.
It's interesting just to kind of see the dynamic between my two parents. My mother up until very recently has refused to talk about any of this. So I've always looked to my dad, even dating back 20, 30 years as I was developing my own estate plan, I would use me and talk about me, my concerns and then eventually that kind of cracked the shell for me to weave in some questions about them. I have found, at least in my personal experience, what has worked is showing respect and also respecting their privacy. I don't need to know the contents, let's say of their legal documents. I've even said to them, I don't care if you leave me a penny. I'm the oldest, you have given me all of these life lessons and education and I have reached my own and fulfilled my own definition of success. I said, but what I want to know is what documents do you have and where are they and who's going to be able to access them? You don't need to give me the details and I have found again with that 80 something generation that seems to be the sweet spot. And my husband has kind of actually been modeling that with his own parents who are of similar age.
Amelia: I love that because it's like, it is layers, so the first layer is initiating the conversation but initiating it to determine whether they have had the conversation at all. Have they begun to think about their estate plan? Have they listed out their path forwards in a safe place? Have they even begun to consider this topic? And then a layer deeper, with whom have they had it? Where are those documents secured? Have they been updated in the last 10 plus years? So just knowing it doesn't have to be one sit down, heavy, overwhelming conversation, but we can kind of gently peel the layers away over time to get to those key ideas that you're talking about, that the plan is in fact.
Kate: Yes because what I have found and also just learning from my clients as well, is one modeling. So here I am, I'm trying to model it to them. So it's a role reversal, which in and of itself is a change, because it's also kind of acknowledging that, okay, the circle of life and the grown daughter now who's almost 50 is now kind of trying to, not so much take charge, but she's just trying to now be the role model. So modeling that behavior, creating that safe space where they see, oh wow, Kate's talking about this and it really wasn't that difficult, it wasn't painful. So I'm now trying to be that role model for them and then also giving them that empowerment. They are in charge. And I don't know if you've read the book, Being Mortal.
Amelia: Yes. I loved it. It’s by Atul Gawande. Yes. It's a good one.
Kate: It's really good. And it really helped me reframe my own perspectives. As we age we want to maintain independence and we want to maintain control. So showing respect to our parents and also giving them that space of like, oh wow, Kate's bringing up things that maybe we haven't talked about and why is she doing that? Oh well look at what she's done. And then hopefully, eventually over time they just become more comfortable.
Amelia: Yeah, I love that you're allowing faith for the processing emotionally, mentally as well as time to do the tasks because it takes time to connect with a lawyer, connect with the digital wrangler to get those plans rolling and in place.
Kate: Yes. And then on the flip side, like talking with my spouse, like I mentioned, I've only got married last year, far later than I think my mother would've ever wished for me. But she raised me to be independent so there we go. But how do you have that conversation with your spouse? So for me, like I mentioned, I've had some medical emergencies when my spouse was in my life and I had one in particular that involved a ride in an ambulance in my thirties before I even met him. And those experiences have also allowed me to say to loved ones. Look, I know that we're probably a little young to be thinking about these things, but look at what has happened to me and this is why I am worried. And so babe, can we go out for a coffee or go out for a beer this weekend so we can talk about this?
Would you be willing to listen to my concerns and maybe the desired outcome I have for that is one, even if he sits and he listens to me, that is success because I'm heard. Now I've planted a seed and then a few months later I can then go back to that and say, okay, we talked about this a couple of months ago, what are you thinking now? Where is your headspace? Is there anything that we can now do and start to take action on? So going back to this is a topic that people don't like to talk about, but if you kind of like what I was saying, you want to make things light and easy for those you leave behind. You also kind of want to make it light and easy for the loved ones that you want to have these conversations with.
Amelia: That's a great, great point and what I hear is both lead with vulnerability, lead with compassion, love, respect, kind of when the emotional experience is kind of low and cognition is high, we're all able to think clearly, the emergency hasn't happened yet, is the safest phase to kind of get through some of these more challenging topics.
Kate: Yeah. Thinking about it in the abstract, like, hey, my husband and I were on this walk a few months back and we're laughing and we're walking past a neighbor who basically was just like, wow, it looks like you guys are having fun and my husband says, yeah, well she's joking about when she runs off with Rob Lowe and all of these things because that was in regards to like our prenup, but again another like sticky topic, but we were having fun and even a neighbor was like, you guys are having so much fun. What are you guys talking about?
Amelia: I love it. I love it. Well, we have touched so much on technology, digital organization, and hard conversations. I'd love to wrap our conversation to know what's kind of one creative way you employ organization? Now you can't go into digital, a different kind of organization as an adult.
Kate: Oh, challenge accepted Amelia. So I find that I am really more present, more focused when I get at least nine hours of sleep. I don't know if that's a menopause thing and because I focus on that, I then find myself in that better head space and that better mindset to be able to handle whatever curve balls life throws at me.
Amelia: I absolutely adore that because everyone in my household and perhaps in my life, they know that bedtime is sacred to me. I don't love to commit to activities late into the evening. I don't take calls late into the evening. My brain sort of turns off at nine o'clock and I'm headed to bed.
Kate: Same here. I'm not ashamed to admit, it's 9 o'clock.
Amelia: It's so good. Well it is important and it is kind of one of those unseen aspects of life organization and life management because it sets ourselves up for the beautiful day ahead for sure. Well thank you so much Kate, for your time, your energy, your expertise today. I'd love for you to tell all the listeners how they can follow you, connect with you and learn more of your wonderful tips that you shared.
Kate: Oh, thank you Amelia. I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. It's really easy to find me. My website is thedigitalwrangler.com. I'm on various social channels under the same handles. So whatever social platform is your favorite, I would love to hear from you and connect with you there.
Amelia: And we're talking wrangler, like w r a n g l e r, right?
Kate: Yes, that is correct. I moved to Colorado a few years ago and making a hat tip to Colorado and the lifestyle, wrangler like a cowboy. The digital wrangler with a w.com.
Amelia: Oh, so fun. So fun. Well, it was my pleasure.
Kate: Thank you.
Outro: Hey y'all, my monthly second Friday's workshop series is here. Join me on the second Friday of every month in 2023 for a practical no frills, come as you are hour of teaching and coaching, I'll show you exactly how I handle one area of home organization. Then the floor will be open for questions and coaching. We'll troubleshoot what's feeling challenging for you and get you unstuck on the spot. Find out more and register @apleasantsolution.com/workshops or via Instagram. Can't wait to meet you.