Everyone likes to talk about and plan for the future – especially when it comes to saving money for retirement. That’s not the case when it comes to death or its consequences, though. For financial advisors, bringing up the discussion of wills and estate planning with clients can be a gruelling task chock full of excuses for why they’re putting it off.
A recent online survey that Angus Reid Forum conducted on behalf of digital estate-planning firm Willful and funeral services company Arbor Memorial Inc. found that 45 per cent of Canadians believe that end-of-life planning doesn’t apply to them, with another 22 per cent of the same group saying it makes them feel uncomfortable and don’t know where to start.
“It’s so strange that people don’t want to talk about death. I think they don’t want to deal with all of the tough decisions that go with it, like naming guardians and trustees,” says Jim Greenwood, financial advisor with the BlueSky Financial Planning team at IPC Securities Corp. in Regina. “It’s surprising to me the number of new clients who say their [previous] advisor never brought it up as well.”
Mr. Greenwood’s team facilitates the entire process of setting up a client’s will by taking them through questionnaires and, with their consent, sending the documents to a lawyer to complete.
“A financial plan isn’t complete without [a will]. You can’t just make retirement projections and call it a financial plan,” Mr. Greenwood says. “You have to be honest and blunt and make it a part of your process. If you’re uncomfortable bringing it up, maybe put it in an e-mail first.”
J-F Courville, managing partner at Purpose Advisor Solutions in Toronto, says some advisors hesitate to discuss wills and estates because they think it’s out of their wheelhouse.
“In the past, advisors didn’t have the easy tools to help them that are in the market today, and the reflex is often to refer the client to a lawyer and stick to financial planning,” he says. “And some clients just don’t want to pay a lawyer to do it or think it’s too expensive.”
For clients who don’t want to use a lawyer, there cheaper online services to get a simple will done. Companies like Willful and Epilogue Wills can put a will in your client’s hands for $99 and $149, respectively, in as quickly as 20 minutes. However, neither service is a one-size-fits-all solution. After filling out a preliminary questionnaire, both companies determine if the situation is suitable for an online will. If not, the process ends.
Mr. Courville says online wills are suitable only for people with relatively simple estates and life situations. For example, a single individual or a young couple who recently got married or bought a house and want to bequeath all assets to their spouse, and vice versa. Or perhaps a young family with a new baby.
“With tech services like Wilful, advisors can help clients complete their wills together and make suggestions about how to split their wealth. It adds a layer of care,” Mr. Courville says.
Alaeddine Jabri, managing partner and lead client consultant, life insurance and living benefits, at Mississauga-based Longevity Achieved, uses Epilogue Wills’ service and says advisors have a duty to talk about or facilitate the completion of a client’s will. He adds that it’s a failure on the advisor’s part if a client dies without one.
“Digital wills are democratizing the estate-planning process and make it much easier to bring up [the discussion] with someone in their 30s with no kids, most of whom want to do anything they can online,” Mr. Jabri says. “Of course, we can’t actually do a client’s will, nor spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to facilitate it. But for $150, we can get a will done for almost every single client.”
Bryan Delaney, lawyer and founder of Delaney’s Law Firm in Ottawa, says while online wills do have a place – it’s a simple and narrow one, and it’s buyer beware. Mr. Delaney’s primary concern is the lack of person-to-person legal advice and the possibility of undue influence or mental incapacity that an experienced lawyer would see and aim to prevent.
“What if, upon death, something goes sideways and the will is inadequate? You can bring action against the lawyer, especially where negligence is involved. We have insurance for that,” Mr. Delaney says. “If the estate isn’t planned well, or If the will is contested, a [digital] will or updated will could be set aside if there is no lawyer behind it. It can be deemed invalid if there was no option to obtain personal, independent legal advice.”
Mr. Delaney believes that more online wills will lead to more contested or problematic wills that, like lawyers, online services will have to deal with − eventually pushing their prices up.
“Our obligations [as lawyers] are onerous and significant, so when you transfer these types of legal services from lawyers to lay people in an open market, you get what you pay for,” Mr. Delaney says. “If you’re a financial advisor who already sends clients to a lawyer and you start referring them to a website instead, you may lose the relationship benefit of just picking up the phone to call that lawyer to ask that ‘quick question.’”