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three picks

These books aren’t going to take care of your estate for you, but they may prod you to start making a plan.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ah, summer! It's when families gather – at weddings, anniversaries and other celebrations.

Often the conversation may turn to "what's next" for the family. What will happen with the family camp, cabin or cottage (depending on where the conversation is taking place in Canada)? When will current owners pass it on? How's the health of the most senior family members? Are their affairs in place?

If these are the conversations around you this summer, do you have answers when questions arise? Surveys tell us that many (if not most) Canadians don't have a valid will or estate plan, or perhaps any plan at all, even one that hasn't been adjusted in years.

While estate planning books are no one's idea of a light beach read, three recent entrants to bookstore shelves aim to demystify the estate planning process for Canadians, allowing us to get this vital part of our overall financial plans in order. We read them all to help you pick one.

1) The easy option Canadian Estate Planning Made Easy (FriesenPress, 2016, $18.99 in paperback, 203 pages) by lawyer Terrance Hamilton Hall.

Mr. Hall says he wrote the book "to empower the public with extensive knowledge of estate planning to be used before seeking professional advice." Of the three books, this is the slimmest – which makes it the fastest to read.

His offering is a little like an annotated bibliography. With 22 chapters, it covers estate planning tools and goals at a high level, hitting all of the must-reads and main points for an estate plan. Some chapters are extremely brief (the one on "Support for pets" is just one page, for example), but all provide a starting point for the curious reader who's interested in a scan of the issues.

Particularly useful is the set of detailed footnotes on virtually every page, providing references to court cases, sections of the Income Tax Act, and relevant legislation. The book concludes with an 18-page appendix for readers to record basic information (bank account details, insurance policies, contact information for your estate lawyer and accountant, and so on).

One key takeaway: Court decisions can expand and change how estates are administered in Canada. For example, the concept of "Joint Family Venture" was created through a Supreme Court of Canada decision, and now affects how wealth may be divided by unmarried couples – and how a court might order your estate to support a dependent such as a common-law spouse, or even an ex-common-law spouse. What this means in practice is that a will or estate plan can "stale" over time, and it's important to ensure you have up-to-date information as you're planning for yourself or another.

You should put this at the top of your list if you want a "skimmable" overview of the things you should be thinking about if you're starting to put an estate plan together.

2) The peaceful option The Essential Canadian Guide to Estate Planning: A Journey Towards Peace of Mind (self-published, 2017, available at for $21.95 in paperback, 247 pages) by lawyer Kevin Wark.

This is an update of his earlier estate planning book, published 16 years ago in 2001. Mr. Wark says he took a second pass at the topic as "much has changed" since his first book was published, but "many Canadians still have not properly planned for what happens when they pass away."

This is a more substantial work and covers more territory – there are two full chapters on business succession, for example, as well as a review of U.S. taxation. Written in a thoughtful, introspective style, the book leads readers through a wide range of topics relevant to end-of-life planning. The book also closes with six separate appendixes that cover tax rates in Canada and U.S. estate taxes, probate fees, a retirement cash flow estimator, and more; and there's also a glossary of terms and a detailed index.

One key takeaway: The particular strength of this book is its presentation of alternate scenarios with in-depth examples, an approach which can help readers consider how specific issues may affect their plans. For example, if you're worried about how to provide ongoing support for a child or other family member who is not capable of supporting themselves, should you accomplish this objective via a direct financial gift, by establishing and funding a Registered Disability Savings Plan, by using a trust established before your death (an inter vivos trust), or with a disability trust established at your death (a testamentary trust)? Your choice will depend on a number of considerations, which are discussed in the section on special-need dependents.

You should put this at the top of your list if you're looking for a longer, narrative-style overview of the points you'll need to consider in planning for an estate, with examples, tables, "what if" scenarios and thorough explanations of possible choices and outcomes.

3) The common-sense option The sixth edition of You Can't Take It With You: Common-Sense Estate Planning for Canadians (HeadSpring Publishing, 2016, $31.95 in paperback, 332 pages) by Sandra Foster.

Written by a non-lawyer, this is the longest of the three – the author takes a different tack than her peers, as she's more like the Suze Orman of Canadian estate planning.

Ms. Foster's book takes advantage of its 300-plus pages, as it's absolutely stuffed full of tips, charts, anecdotes, Q&A sections and more. The author includes material not covered in the other two volumes, such as what to do with your digital assets and whether you should consider becoming an organ donor.

One key takeaway: The book points out that these two areas are quite different in Canadian law, as there is no legislation that gives your executor or attorney the automatic authority to deal with your digital devices, assets and passwords – and some user agreements or terms of service (for online accounts such as PayPal or Facebook) may actually prohibit users from sharing accounts or from other people from accessing your information to carry out your wishes, regardless of your relationship, "to protect your privacy."

In contrast, every jurisdiction in Canada has established legislation that gives residents the rights and methods they can use to indicate their wish to be an organ or tissue donor on death. What this means in practice is that your will should directly address how you want your digital assets to be handled upon your death – and if you would like to be a tissue or organ donor, you should follow the procedures already established in law.

Finally, Ms. Foster also offers a separate companion estate planning workbook to help readers consolidate and organize the information their executor, estate planner and lawyer for financial matters may use as necessary.

You should put this at the top of your list if you want a straightforward, comprehensive outline of all (really, all) the things you might need to address when planning for the end of your or another's life, you like a "no-nonsense" approach to financial matters, and you're willing to put in the time and attention a book of this length requires.

The bottom line Whichever of these volumes you choose, however, there's a common downside to all of them: they aren't going to plan your estate for you. Even the most helpful or longest, most information-packed book will prod you, at best, in the direction of getting something done – but can't actually do it for you. (And for what it's worth, none of these books offer much, if any, advice about what to when you're confronted with a death and no effective advance planning.) Instead, you still have to take whatever action is required to finish the job.

Here's a thought, though: With this part of your financial planning handled, you might enjoy your summer more.

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