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estate planning

It's the compelling side of wealth - accumulating as much as possible to make working, leisure, domestic and retirement life easier.

Not nearly as enticing is learning how to ensure what you've accumulated - whether cash, investments, property or a business - isn't going to the dogs after death.

Passing on financial and sentimental wealth from generation to generation has become more thought-provoking, financial advisers say, as the makeup of families, how people earn a living, the goals of investors and the economy changes.

But while the time to plan for the future is now, discussing who gets what after death isn't exactly at the top of everyone's must-do lists.

"Generally speaking, the sexy stuff we hear about is, 'How do I maximize for today?' There's such a focus on getting the best return, the best investment profile," says Jess Mann, the Toronto-based managing director and head of estate and trust services for Scotia Private Client Group.

Protect Your Estate

Here are some strategies to keeping wealth all in the family:

  1. Look into setting up assets such as buildings, cottages or other non-primary-residence property as trusts (family or testamentary, for example) or corporations, to minimize capital gains and other taxes, as well as other costs that might otherwise come out of the estate.
  2. Leave behind enough liquid assets (such as cash, stocks, bonds, insurance) that can be used to pay taxes that might otherwise shrink the estate.
  3. Look into investments that are especially estate-friendly, such as segregated funds, deemed under the Income Tax Act as a sort of trust for tax purposes.
  4. Register assets in joint ownership, which is a simple way to transfer assets. (Although useful for avoiding probate taxes, there may be other tax and legal complications.) Create a separate account from your partner, to avoid "co-mingling" everything that is owned, protecting inheritances and other assets from divorce, breakups and lawsuits.

"But it should also be about, 'How do I do proper will and estate and other planning, and how I want my wealth to pass on and to whom.'

"If you spent your whole life trying to amass and grow as much wealth as possible, why wouldn't you want to do the same for your estate? Don't you want to pass on the maximum amount of wealth possible? That way of thinking is sometimes missed by families."

Ms. Mann cites some modern-day challenges to deciding where a person's wealth goes after death. They include:

  • The rise in blended families, divorce and non-traditional relationships;
  • A desire by many Canadians to work past 65, for financial or personal-preference reasons, given the end of mandatory retirement in most jurisdictions;
  • Canadians' desires to contribute to philanthropic and charitable causes;
  • More home-based and small businesses.

No matter what the family or work scenario, the plans to maximize estate value should all start with "the talk."

"When I talk to my clients about preserving their wealth for generations, I tell them there is a need to have honest and frank conversations with their family," says Teresa Black Hughes, a partner in the Vancouver firm of Solguard Financial Ltd./PEAK Securities Inc., and past chairwoman of Advocis, the Financial Advisors Association of Canada.

The discussions should be specific, she adds.

For instance, an owner of a small business needs to determine whether there is an heir apparent, and whether that benefactor needs any special training or education to take it on. Having more than one benefactor in line requires even more planning - for instance, what if one sibling wants the business but the other siblings don't.

The first step to safeguarding assets for generations to come is getting a properly prepared, up-to-date will, with all powers of attorney and executors and an estate plan in place, experts say.

"People really think about living in the today and helping their kids today, but they have to put together a plan that covers their estate in the most efficient and effective way, to minimize money erosion," says Robert McCullagh, vice-chairman of Advocis and a certified financial adviser with Benefit Planners Inc. in Calgary.

Adam Melo, a financial planner with RBC Wealth Management in Toronto, says a will should take into account "outside forces that can affect the assets in an estate. Most people don't think that they will ever divorce or that their children will fight over their assets when they are gone."

It's estimated that in the next 10 years, $80-billion to $140-billion will transfer from one generation to the next each year, according to Mr. Melo's research.

"The most common asset that I have seen families want to pass on is their cottage," he adds. "However, most families fail to realize the capital gain triggered by cottages upon death. These capital gains taxes must be paid, therefore causing an estate to shrink in size very quickly."

Donna Kett, who was born in Toronto and now works in Calgary as a finance manager for Shell Canada, feels she has the money-managing and asset-protection angles covered.

Ms. Kett brushed up on her investing and planning knowledge by taking a course in 2001 led by Mr. McCullagh, who teaches at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. He later became her adviser because, she says, "Having a career and being a newly single mother raising two teenagers [now ages 21 and 19] I didn't have much time to manage my financial plan."

After reviewing her portfolio, they put a strategy in place so she could save for the future.

Three years ago, Ms. Kett decided to buy her parents' cottage in Tay Township in Ontario - they no longer wanted to be responsible for it, but still wanted to enjoy time there, especially with their grandchildren. Ms. Kett and her parents, who live in Oshawa, had the properties assessed and they negotiated a fair market-value price. "Since then, my parents and extended family continue to use the cottage," she says. "I intend to have my children inherit the cottage properties from me."

With people living and working longer, Ms. Hughes and Mr. McCullagh see more situations where children play a direct role in protecting valuable family assets that they may one day inherit.

Still, certain protections should be built into a will, including possibly not putting all the eggs into the inheritance basket.

"If a family does suspect greed to be an issue upon death, they can establish trusts to pay out 'X' amount at a certain time," Mr. Melo says. "This will ensure that the entire pool of money isn't spent too quickly and it protects the person's wishes upon death."

Mr. McCullagh used a graduated-payment concept in his own estate planning.

For example, each of his three young children would receive a certain amount of money, factoring in inflation, at age 18, then at ages 25, 30 and 35. They would also receive a certain amount a month for schooling.

It's all part of defining what you want your legacy to be, Mr. McCullagh says, and "what you want to have accomplished when your time has come."