Writing a will can be overwhelming, but it is an important foundation of good financial planning. In this article, we’ll take a look at why it is so important, how to get started, and what to consider when writing it.
What is a will?
A “last will and testament” is a legal document that explains how to divide your assets after you die, as well as who will care for your children, if applicable. The document will also name an “executor,” who will be the person entrusted with settling your affairs. Writing a will is a critical step in successful estate and financial planning, but it is often overlooked.
Why is a will important?
A will is important to have in place because you never know what could happen to you, or when. If you die without a will, you risk having a court decide how to divide your assets. This could lead to emotional heartbreak for loved ones, as it takes control out of your family’s hands. It could also create conflict between family members, or be a missed opportunity to make meaningful charitable donations. Furthermore, if you have children under 18, a court may decide who becomes your children’s caregiver. Though some people don’t mind what happens to their belongings, everyone cares what could happen to their kids. The bottom line is that there are many serious reasons why it’s important to prepare a will.
How do I write a will?
The most straightforward way to write a will is to contact a notary or lawyer. If you don’t know one, an accountant or financial planner may be able to point you in the right direction, and failing that, there’s always the internet or even a good old phonebook. Chances are high that there are professionals in your neighbourhood who would be happy to help.
When should I write (or update) my will?
There is never a bad time to start writing a will, and most adults should have one. Often times, people write or update their wills after big life events. This could be after starting your first serious job, getting married, having children, buying a house, or after starting a business. No matter what the occasion, or even lack thereof, it never hurts to get started and write your initial will, and then to refresh it regularly if you have important changes in your life.
There are sad milestones which may require a will update as well. These could include separation or divorce, a spouse or other beneficiary passing away, or even your executor dying. Once you’ve taken time to yourself and recovered, dust off your will and revamp it as needed.
Who should my executor be?
Choosing an executor is a big decision. Your executor should be competent, trustworthy, and preferably younger than you. Trust is particularly important, as this person will be in control of your estate after you’re gone. No one wants an executor who may hijack the process or act in a manner contrary to your will’s spirit.
It’s also a good idea to discuss this subject in advance with the person you have in mind. No one wants to wake up one day and find out they have lost their friend or loved one, and that they are also the executor. Reviewing your will with this person is a good idea too – that way you can discuss potential snags and clear up any points of confusion or sources of potential conflict with the will’s beneficiaries.
After you have a willing executor, you should plan to build a payment for them into the will as well, as it can be a difficult, time-consuming, and emotionally draining job. Payment is often based on a portion of the estate’s size. For example, when planning for smaller estates, like say $100,000, you may want to pay your executor 4%, but if your estate is $2 million or $3 million, 1% may be more appropriate. If you’re not in a situation where you’re willing or able to do so, consider a small honorarium at minimum to acknowledge and partially compensate their time and commitment. As other options, some people choose to have multiple executors (e.g. two adult children), or to hire a professional. No matter what you do, is essential to think about who you want to fulfill your final wishes, and how you will ask them to do so.
You may also want to arrange to give your executor, spouse, or someone else you trust power of attorney. Power of attorney documents are sometimes referred to as a “living will”, because power of attorney gives someone the legal right to act on your behalf and make decisions for you if you become incapacitated for any reason. For more on this topic click here.
What should I consider when writing my will?
Married couples often have identical wills that name the other partner as the beneficiary – but while very sad, it’s still a possibility that both partners may die at or around the same time. Because of this, you should make sure to specify what happens if you and your life partner both pass away at the same time.
There is really no right or wrong way to write a will, as long as you have a legal professional review and confirm it. You could establish a trust, which is more costly to maintain, but may reduce taxes and give you more say over how your beneficiaries spend your funds. Alternatively, you could choose to simply give everything you own to your children, your next-door neighbor, or even donate it to a charity with no strings attached. Your assets are your property, and you may do whatever you want with them.
Once you have your will written, make sure to keep multiple copies. You could have one at home, one with a lawyer, one with your executor, and copies with adult children. It is also important to provide your executor with an annually updated list of your financial institutions. This will make your executor’s job much easier when the time comes, as your will can tell them what to do, and your updated records can tell them where your assets are held.
Finally, you have to remember that the tax-man, as always, wants a piece of your estate, and that your assets will also have to go through the probate process. There are many good resources online to help you and your executor understand how to navigate probate and make sure your estate is squared away in the eyes of the government. If in doubt, start with this link to the Canada Revenue Agency on what to do following a death. Lastly, it may be an obvious point, but it’s also worth stating that debts don’t disappear when you pass away. Your heirs won’t inherit your debt, but creditors can make a claim on your estate if you owe them money at the time of your passing.
Your final will and testament is a critical document, and is part of the foundation of strong financial planning. If you die without a will, your estate may be divided in a way contrary to your wishes, and you could risk having a court determine what happens to your assets, and who becomes caregiver to your child or children. Remember that when you’re writing your will, you can choose to distribute your assets in almost any way you please. Once your will is written, make sure that you have a trustworthy executor in place, and that you have discussed your wishes with them. You should also make a habit of updating your will after big life changes or important events. Ultimately, no matter where you are in life today, it probably makes sense for you to write a will and outline your final wishes.
Stay tuned for more on a similar topic next month, where we will look in further detail at power of attorney, incapacity planning, and representation agreements.
Please keep in mind that I am not a financial advisor, and the opinions expressed are my own. My Money Moves does not provide financial advice – it is an informational website that details my own approach to my own money and personal finances. If you need specific financial help or guidance, please do your own research, and seek out a professional who can work with you to reach your goals.