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How New Zealand's estate planning services will look by 2025

There may be no other industry in New Zealand that has been more revolutionised by new technology than fiduciary services, says Perpetual Guardian IT head Willem van der Steen.

Until five-or-so years ago, the process of making a Will, Trust or Enduring Powers of Attorney (EPA) would typically involve several in-person meetings between a client and their adviser. At a minimum, the client would visit the office to give their instructions, supply the relevant information and receive advice. A second visit would follow to review the document for further updates before the client returns once again to approve and sign the final document, which would be stored in paper form for safekeeping.

Enter technology. Already, the process described above has drastically evolved. There is much more to come from companies that are dedicated to making estate planning accessible and affordable for a wide range of New Zealanders, regardless of age, ethnicity or household income.

By 2025, even the changes happening now will be forgotten. Here are some of the key ways technology is revolutionising fiduciary services:

Everything is driven by a ‘digital first’ strategy.

Paper isn’t obsolete, but when you’re talking about Wills, EPAs and Trusts, it’s far from ideal. There have been too many cases of the relatives that are left behind, after a loved one’s death, not being able to find the Will, or locating one that is not even necessarily current.

A digital first strategy makes it almost absurdly easy for the client to do business with us, simplifies day-to-day processes for our team members and constantly uses tech to improve the company’s capability. To give an example from inside our business, we have a digital vault in which clients can safely store their documents and retrieve, review and update them as necessary. In the event of a death, for instance, family members can be certain that the Will stored in the digital vault is up-to-date and reflects the wishes of their loved one. Technology, when applied well, should make fiduciary services simple, precise and convenient – especially at a time when a family is grieving.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

This is a slightly cheesy way of saying that partnerships are the way of the future in tech. Not even the largest corporate has the capacity or resources to develop everything from scratch themselves. The smartest businesses are looking for local and global partners who can supply the IP and custom tech they need.

My team and I spend time at various tech conferences and roadshows to see what’s out there, meet the best and the brightest tech minds, and find out who can offer the tech capability we can embed in our own offering. From there both companies can grow together. The value for the tech provider is in becoming a cornerstone customer of our business, and in turn we have the ‘first-mover’ advantage. It spares us risk and connects us with what I call the innovation eco-system.

I frequently encounter people in the early stages of development of some brilliant new piece of tech. Eighteen months down the track the product is mature and you can work together fairly easily. An example is the Kinly app, which was developed elsewhere and bought by Perpetual Guardian to offer a simple mobile platform for Will-making – people can use the app to record their declarations on video, and then there is back-office support to ensure everything is legal and valid.

Consumers have never been more tech-savvy.

These days, it’s rare for us to deal with a client who doesn’t have an email address or smartphone. Kiwis are savvy, fast movers who treat the web as an essential resource. We have all become conditioned to expect more, partly by companies that have truly driven tech for customer engagement – Air New Zealand is a terrific example, having changed the engagement model completely with a cool app and online check-in procedures, among many other things.

It is however important to remember that not everything can be digitised and many of our clients like to have a face-to-face experience. Looking at our business, we constantly review what requires a personal touch. Life is complicated – for us, the advice component, whether it be for estate planning, investment management or any other service, is often face-to-face at the client’s request, but the expectation now is that simple administrative matters can be done online. We have an online portal for clients to use if they want, and if you’re making an uncomplicated Will, you can do it online, and post it back to us – signed and witnessed.

Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) are big news.

Over time, the goal is to make updates to Wills and other documents much less labour-intensive. For instance, a company like ours will link (with the customer’s explicit permission) to government-owned sources of data such as births, deaths and marriages, to NZ Post so we can see when people have changed addresses, and even to a customer’s Facebook account, where people will often self-declare marriages, children’s births and so on. Imagine how AI could streamline this even more.  For us, the value is in owning a system that can connect with the outside world and maintain the currency of the valuable documents that our clients trust us with.

Tech permits audacity.

When I look ahead to 2025, I have big ambitions for applying new tech such as blockchain and AI. Blockchain means that with trust between our business and our clients, we can create a mechanism where we don’t need a third party to transact payments, or we can programme a Will in creative ways, such as that when a client’s son graduates from university, he receives a certain value of bitcoin. If he doesn’t graduate, the payment is not released.

In future, and possibly not even as far away as 2025, we might partner with a tech provider offering voice recognition, so clients can give their instructions verbally through an app for processing by our staff. It’s all about finding a balance between tech capability and what our clients want from us.

Willem van der Steen is the head of IT at Perpetual Guardian. He previously led innovation and digital capability building at Callaghan Innovation, and mobile ICT at Spark Digital.