Death and taxes. The two eventualities we all face, yet no one wants to address them before their time. The government forces us to deal with our taxes each year, but often, death strikes without notice. COVID-19 has many of us thinking about our own mortality and the well-being of our loved ones.
First: it’s normal to feel anxious
I wish I could tell you that there’s an easy way to start and complete your will. It’s scary! After all, you’re talking about your end and making tough decisions like, who should look after your children if something were to happen to you (and your partner if you have one)? Who should get your hard-earned assets and investments? What if you have a complex situation? Or what if you simply don’t know where to start?
Although I’m not a lawyer, when I was in the financial industry for more than a decade, starting a will was one of the most emotionally difficult things my clients had to do. Although it might seem like one item on your to-do list, it actually comprises many steps.
The way to overcome anxiety
Regardless of your situation, all adult Canadians should have current will and clearly stated last wishes. Having a will in place is a gift you give to your loved ones after you’ve gone. It’s an uncomfortable task that you take on today so your loved ones have clarity about your wishes when you’ve passed.
And, a properly drafted will and estate plan could mean paying less tax to the government, lawyers and possibly courts. By clearly making provisions in your will for how your assets are to be paid out, it’s less likely more money will have to be spent when you pass for lawyers and courts to figure out your wishes.
Karen Platten, Q.C., estate planning lawyer and partner with McLennan Ross, recognizes that “while doing a will is daunting, if one thinks about the alternative, not having a will may be even more daunting. Especially for those with young children, as a will answers who their guardian will be, how much money will be left for them and when they should receive the money as well as who looks after the money for them in the meantime.”
She finds that the anxiety people feel about doing a will quickly eases as they get through the steps and talk with a professional. But, the only way to quell that angst is to fully complete the process.
What are the steps?
Step one: get a list of all your assets and debts.
Step two: determine whom you’d like to leave your assets to.
Step three: determine where you can name a beneficiary and do that immediately (RRSPs, RRIFs, group RRSPs, TFSAs, life-insurance policies – personal and at work, pensions and more).
Step four: make sure the beneficiaries with your assets match what you’re directing in your will.
Step five: make a list of personal effects and whom you’d like them to be left to.
Step six: determine guardianship of your children or dependents.
Step seven: contact a lawyer for a free consultation as well as your certified financial planner and/or accountant to make sure you haven’t missed any important considerations.
Step eight: work with your lawyer or a DIY kit to create your will.
Step nine: store your will and copies.
Step 10: let your executor know the location of your will.
Step 11: pat yourself on your back and put a reminder in your calendar each year to briefly review your will to see if changes need to be made.
Working with a lawyer
Most lawyers will start by sending you and having you fill out a questionnaire. Doing this step takes time and by completing it in advance of meeting with a lawyer can save you considerable costs.
This will include an exhaustive list of your assets, cherished items, details about your family and situation and what percentage you’d like to leave to whom. Most lawyers will also review your powers of attorney needs (which allows someone else to make financial decisions temporarily while you’re alive if you can’t) as well as living wills or health-care directives (specifics of your care if you were to suffer an emergency or hospitalization) when drafting and finalizing your will.
The cost is up to the person and lawyer, and can range from $500 to $5,000. Depending how long a person takes to decide who gets what, it could take a few days up to years.
Using a DIY will kit
If you don’t have the money to see a lawyer, or even for a kit, some some provinces allow a holographic will, often also called a handwritten will. This is a document you write in your own handwriting and sign it without witnesses or the presence of an attorney.
As you can imagine, these may be more scrutinized and possibly contested by your loved ones or your estate when you pass away because there wasn’t a witness to prove you were of sound mind and body. The same may apply with DIY will kits.
But Karen cautions that, “whether you do a handwritten will or use a form of fill-in-the-blanks, it is likely that something in your particular situation will be missed. You may have certain items you want to leave to individuals or leave something to charity, or set up a trust for a child whom you think cannot handle money, to name a few examples.”
You can work with a lawyer remotely
You don’t have to have a lawyer draft up your will, but if you have any level of complexity to your estate or final wishes, you may miss important considerations by doing it yourself.
With COVID-19 distancing concerns, lawyers are working from outside of clients windows to witness signing documents like wills and powers of attorney.
The Ontario government removed one of the big barriers to writing wills last week when it issued an emergency order to allow virtual witnessing of wills and powers of attorney through online video platforms.
While other provinces offer more flexibility, Ontario’s laws required in-person witnessing of both wills and powers of attorney by two people, who are neither a beneficiary nor a spouse of a beneficiary.
Most professionals will happily give you a free initial consultation. So be sure to reach out to an estate lawyer, certified financial planner and tax specialist when making decisions about your end of life intentions. They’ll not only help you identify blind spots, but will walk you through the entire process in as streamlined a way as possible.
Give yourself a pat on the back
Once your will is complete, but sure to have a copy locked up safely in your home, a copy with your lawyer if you used one, and the original in your safety deposit box if you have one. It’s a good idea to let the executor (the person that will legally fulfill the obligations of your will) know that you’ve named them as such and the location of your original will.
I personally found the daunting task of drawing up my own will and subsequent updating of it over the years worked best if I scheduled the smaller tasks over several weeks and added them to my online calendar as a reminder. And like spring cleaning each year, I simply added the annual reminder to my digital calendar so I don’t just set it and forget it. As your life changes, so might the wishes in your will.
With a file from The Canadian Press
Also on HuffPost: