It could be the most important document people write, and they won’t be alive to see it through. Writing a will may be at the bottom of many to-do lists, but financial and legal experts say that laying out your wishes can ensure your money goes where you want and may save your estate from unnecessary bills after you’re gone.
Carol Harding, a wealth adviser with CIBC Wealth Advisory Services, says having a will is like having insurance. “Hopefully nothing happens,” she said. “But if something does happen, at least you’ve got the right paperwork in place to help the assets go to the right place.”
When people die without a will, it is considered intestate and the courts will appoint an executor to administer an estate with the assets distributed according to the rules laid out provincially.
“What may happen is that there are assets allocated to children that might be needed for other purposes,” Harding said. “If assets are transferred to a spouse—for example, RRSPs—they can transfer without being taxable, where if you have RRSPs and they are transferred either to a child or to a sibling, that becomes taxable income.”
Tina Garbas-Tyrrell, a wills and estates lawyer at Burke-Robertson, says before people draft a will they need to consider issues like who they want to administer the estate and, in the case of those who have young children, who will become their guardian.
They also need to have a good idea of their debts and assets, including RRSPs, TFSAs, property and other investments and how those should be divided. “We want to know: What kinds of assets do you have? What kinds of debts do you have and where do you want your wealth to go?” she said.
Garbas-Tyrrell said if someone holds their accounts jointly with a spouse, that can make things easier if they don’t have a will. But if something happens to both spouses, their estate would be left without clear direction. “If you are both on a plane and the plane goes down and both of you are gone, where does your wealth go?” she said.
Without a will, there may also be additional costs that could add up even if people don’t have a big estate, Garbas-Tyrrell said.
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“If that’s sitting in a bank account, it’s quite possible that the bank will require you to probate or get a certificate of appointment, which means your loved ones to release those funds can end up incurring $2,000 to $3,000 in legal fees,” she said. “Whereas if you had a will it could have been released by the bank without any additional fees.”
And if the situation is challenged, legal costs would drive that even higher and far beyond the cost it would have been to prepare a will.
Wills can be written by hand and signed or done using kits, but Harding said while that may be better than nothing, people may miss out on some options they might not have considered. “Sometimes those wills too are delayed in court because if there are different parties interested, they seem to be delayed because there may be more arguments,” she said.
It is also about more than money. Harding noted that if people have children and die without a will, the courts will have to decide who will become their guardian. “So even though you may not have a lot of assets, that’s one big thing to think about and anybody that has children should have a will solely for that purpose.”
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