Building Blocks is a special personal finance web series geared towards educating young Canadian families about various money-related topics. A series of stories, videos and discussions, Building Blocks will run online until the end of December. For a video on the topic of estate planning, click here.
The perfect wedding is over, the dream honeymoon now just a memory. What's a young couple with some extra time on their hands to do?
How about writing their will. It may not be romantic, but it's one of those tasks newlyweds can't ignore if they want to protect each other in the event one of them unexpectedly dies. A will can help in many ways, whether it's making sure the estate's assets are distributed to the intended recipients, or ensuring the widowed spouse has immediate access to funds.
Unfortunately, those who fail to address this scary outcome could end up creating unnecessary worries for the surviving spouse if tragedy strikes.
Many people die without a will. If you don't have a will there are a number of issues that arise. Nicholas Bala, law professor
"Many people die without a will," says Nicholas Bala, a law professor at Queen's University. "It turns out young couples, old couples, some people psychologically tend to want to put it off."
"If you don't have a will there are a number of issues that arise."
What kind of problems exactly? Those who inherit the estate, for example, could be burdened with a bigger tax bill and more expenses as the government takes the lead in distributing assets. As well, dying without a will could lead to a feud between those nearest and dearest.
"Life events arise all the time; you could die tomorrow," says Andrea Thompson, associate estate planning adviser at Raymond James. "So it's something you need to deal with immediately just to have that protection in place for your family and yourself."
Unless someone is angling for a family war over the car, house and big screen TV, a will is the way to go. The following is a basic guide so young couples can tackle the tast and move on to thinking about other fun things, like that pile of thank-you notes that need to be sent out to the wedding guests.
DIY or hiring help
It is possible to draw up one's own will, experts agree, especially if there aren't a lot of assets involved. For example, some provinces accept so-called holographic wills, which are basically wills written in an individual's own handwriting. But messy handwriting and other issues can make these wills a target for challenges. It's no surprise then that Professor Bala only recommends it for the unlikely occasion when "you're on a desert island and you know you're dying." Another possibility is to use software templates from the Internet or books and to create one's own will on the computer. Witnesses can be required for the signing of these kinds of wills.
Still there are obvious benefits to consulting a lawyer, especially as an estate grows in size and complexity. Beyond their basic expertise, Ms. Thompson points out that lawyers are up to date on changes in legislation and case law that could impact wills. Individuals who draft their own will may miss out.
"Having a lawyer makes sure all these different issues are addressed and taken care of and that it's secure," she says.
Doing a will at home is obviously cheap. Buying a book on wills with the software for the forms costs about $20 at government bookstores. The friends who witness the will's signing (they can't be possible beneficiaries of the estate) are free.
For those who want to go the professional route, a lawyer could charge anywhere from $400 to $1,000 to prepare a will for a simple estate, Ms. Thompson reckons. In fact, Professor Bala says lawyers tend to charge a "fairly reasonable" price for drawing up wills because they expect they may get further work from the estate if a client dies.
Building the team
Every individual needs to choose someone to carry out the wishes in their will. This person, the executor, oversees the distribution of the estate as set out in the will and is responsible for dealing with any related financial or legal issues that may surface. It doesn't matter if they are a professional executor or a relative or friend. What counts is that they are highly-regarded and trustworthy because they will be in charge of all the money. Experts also say it's helpful if they live nearby and have the time to tackle the task, because there could be paperwork or other time-consuming tasks that need to be completed locally.
Along with doing a will, Professor Bala says individuals should also appoint a power of attorney to oversee their finances and medical care in case an individual is incapacitated. Surprisingly, he considers this "as important or more important" than a will. Why? Well if a couple were hospitalized after an accident, for example, the power of attorney would have immediate control over their finances and be able to arrange to pay their mortgage or medical care.
Whether it's the power of attorney or executor, though, it's important to tell the candidates that they have been chosen so there are no problems down the road because someone rejects the duty.
No will - no problem?
Wrong. If you don't make a will you will be considered "intestate." That means that the government, not you, will decide who gets what. Each province has its own formula: spouses get so much, children get so much, etc. So if a married son, for example, sent his mother a monthly payment every month she could get cut off if he dies without a will.
"The main purpose of it is to fulfill your desires," Ms. Thompson says.
Helpful estate planning resources: