For several years in a row, Toronto parents Stephen Whillans and Kendall Anderson would be heading out the door for a vacation when they’d remember that they didn’t have a will. “We’d end up scribbling something down on a piece of paper,” says Whillans. Finally, last year, the couple sat down with a lawyer to formalize their wishes for their two children, Talia, 5, and Luke, 2. It’s an exercise that too few families undertake. According to the most recent survey on this topic, half of all Canadians don’t have a will. Read on to find out why you should have one and how to go about making it.
Why Do I Need a Will?
It’s hard to think about death when you’re young and healthy. “But car accidents and sickness happen to young people too,” says Les Kotzer, a wills and estates lawyer and co-author of Where There’s An Inheritance… (Continental Atlantic). Without a legal will, your loved ones are going to have to deal with trying to figure out what you’d have wanted. Even worse, the law may take that decision out of their hands. If you don’t write a will, for example, the law in the province or territory where you live can decide how to split up your assets. A common-law spouse may get nothing. And, in British Columbia, your legal spouse gets the first $65,000 (in Ontario it’s $200,000) if you die without a will. The remainder of the estate is split equally with your legal spouse and the children when they reach the age of majority where you live.
What Does a Will Cost?
That depends on the province and the individual lawyer, but Kotzer charges $475 per will or $800 for a couple. The benefit of having a lawyer draw up a will, says Doug Morris, member of the Estate & Financial Planning Institute and owner of Morris Financial Group in Grande Prairie, Alta., is that they can help you properly express your wishes.” For example, if you leave your antiques to your sister, does that mean items more than 25 years old?
Can I Use a Kit or Write It on a Piece of Paper?
“A holograph will (one done completely in your own handwriting) is considered valid,” says Morris. “The fill-in-the-blanks kits would certainly give direction to survivors, but may run into complications if taken to court.” But Morris adds this caution; If you create a handwritten or kit will at the last minute, say before a vacation, make sure to revisit it when you return. “In this busy world, temporary fixes often have a way of becoming almost permanent. If at all possible, a quick visit to a lawyer in advance would still be my recommendation.”
What Should My Will Cover?
Your will should name a guardian for your kids, specify what will happen to your worldly goods and name an executor and a backup to carry out those instructions. Do you want to dole out money to your kids at 18 and 25? Say so in your will. You should also have related documents called a power of attorney for property (to manage your finances), and a power of attorney for personal care (to manage your medical care). Also, a living will, which details a person’s desires regarding their medical treatment when they are unable to make their wishes known (e.g., if in a coma), is an option.
What Should I Look for in a Guardian?
The Whillans-Anderson family chose Anderson’s sister as guardian, mainly because she and her husband have two kids and share the same basic values. Other factors to take into consideration: the age of potential guardians, where they live (proximity helps minimize disruption to the kids’ lives), similarity of lifestyle and what happens if they divorce. “It’s not enough to say you want to appoint your sister and brother-in-law as guardians,” advises Kotzer. “If they split up, there could be a custody battle with your child in the middle. I often suggest that people just name their blood relative—the sister—to take custody.”
How Do I Choose an Executor?
You might want to choose someone other than your kids’ guardian, possibly another blood relative, as executor of your will, suggests Kotzer. “That way, you have a check and a balance. If the guardian tries to make the case that in order to accommodate the child they need to buy a big house in an expensive neighbourhood, you have someone to say, ‘Look, this is the child’s money you’re using.’”
Am I Forgetting Something?
Don’t forget to ask your chosen executor(s) and guardian(s) whether they’re willing to take on the role. And consider the financial and emotional load. A guardian “may end up with a big family overnight,” says Morris, requiring a roomier house, a bigger vehicle, and a multitude of additional expenses. Whillans and Anderson thought about how taking on their kids would affect their guardians. “Now a substantial portion of the money goes to the guardians, with an executor to oversee it,” says Whillans.
Where Should I Keep a Will?
Morris suggests keeping one copy in a safety deposit box and one at home in a file cabinet, freezer or fire-proof lock box.
Tip: You should update your will any time there’s a significant life change, for example, if you divorce, remarry or have more children.