A will is a written document that speaks for you after you die. It communicates how you want your property and assets to be distributed. It names a guardian for your children, in the case that you pass away before they reach adulthood. And it leaves other specific instructions, like preferred arrangements for your funeral. All are important decisions that you don’t want to leave to chance. Yet, a 2018 Angus Reid Institute poll found that 51% of Canadians don’t have a will.
The good news is that it’s easier than you think. Here’s everything you need to know to get yours in order.
Who needs a will?
Anyone who has children, property and/or assets should have a will. And, once drafted and signed, it should be reviewed every three to five years to ensure that it continues to reflect your life and wishes. With that, it can be updated according to any life changes, like marriage, having children, a death in the family, divorce, and property acquisition.
What are key considerations when making a will?
While wills can be varied – customized to reflect personal preferences relating to your assets and your legacy – a few elements are otherwise universal. These include:
- Appointing a guardian for children. One of the most important decisions you can make in your will is appointing a guardian (or guardians) for your children, if under the age of 18. It can be a difficult conversation, for sure. But, here’s the alternative: in the event that both parents are suddenly deceased, or if you’re a single parent and pass away prematurely, a judge at a family court will be left to choose on your behalf. Most often, the person identified by the parents in a written will, even if not legally binding, is the one who a judge will appoint as the official guardian. (Note: Rules for appointing a guardian may differ across provinces.)
- Appointing an executor. An executor is the person (or multiple people) entrusted with administering your estate and ensuring that all instructions outlined in your will are followed in accordance with the law. You can appoint a friend or family member, if that’s your preference. Just remember, it’s a role that can come with detailed and time-consuming responsibilities, so it’s important to choose carefully. For that reason, some people may appoint a professional, such as a lawyer, an accountant, or a trust company.
What happens if you don’t have a will?
Dying without a will is termed “intestate” by Canadian law. Essentially, it means that there are no specific instructions on how to divide or distribute your assets. Keep in mind that if a person dies intestate, each province or territory has its own rules on administering someone’s estate. However, the process is often long and expensive.
Do you have life insurance?
A big part of effective estate settlement is having the right insurance. There are different life insurance needs for every life stage, ranging from covering final expenses and immediate financial needs at death to replacing lost income and protecting the growth of your estate. If you already have life insurance, make sure that beneficiaries named in your policies are also reflected in your will, and that both are up to date.
Ready to make your will?
Making a will doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. If you’re new to the process, here are two common and straightforward ways to create one:
- Write your own. A will is legal as long as it’s written and signed in your own handwriting. It doesn’t have to be signed by witnesses, though that always helps. Most problems tend to occur if it's not clearly understood, so try to be specific enough that your wishes are not open to interpretation. Furthermore, if you’re not familiar with the law and include instructions that are contrary to what the law permits, your wishes may not be carried out.
- Have it written by a lawyer. This is usually the safest route, particularly if you have considerable assets. A lawyer is qualified to write wills that clearly state your wishes, and in a way that no misunderstandings can emerge. Not all lawyers will charge the same fee, and even the same lawyer may charge different fees, depending on the complexity of the situation.
Once you have a will, keep it somewhere safe (in a fireproof box, for example, along with other important documents) and make sure that your executor knows where to find it. If you have a lawyer draw it up for you, they will typically keep a signed original, too.
Of course, some things aren’t as straightforward as they seem. If you have questions about making your will or how life insurance can help to protect your family, contact your to financial representative* at any time. They’d be happy to help.
*In the province of Quebec, the authorized representatives are Financial Security Advisors who have been duly certified by the Autorité des marchés financiers.
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