It is hard to overstate the advantages of having a good will. So, why don’t more of us embrace “will power,” even when we know story after story of families, business partners, and advisors having to clean up the mess when a person dies “intestate” (without a will)?
In a lighthearted twist on a serious topic, here are five excuses, together with my rebuttal, for you to share with colleagues and clients or consider in your own situation.
- ‘All I have is debts”
With monthly bills, car loans, and mortgage payments, it is sometimes hard to appreciate that you do have an “estate” (your home, your vehicles, etc.) to distribute.
You may have also overlooked the important “minor” reasons for having a will:
- naming guardians for your children; and
- setting up trust funds to manage the impact of money on young lives, so that they are not damaged by receiving money that is either too much or too soon, or too difficult to access by the parent or guardian who will care for them.
- “I would have to visit a lawyer”
If a lasting legacy appeals to you, you will need a will to accomplish it.Who should I call? What will it cost? Why can’t I just use a will kit or write it myself? Each province has its own wills and succession laws. Do you know what law the kit was drafted for or how the courts have interpreted will wording in your province? Do you know the rules about how the will must be signed and witnessed? It is best to work with a lawyer who knows about wills and estates, and has practical experience with both the questions you have and the ones you haven’t yet thought about
To put the cost in perspective, look at what you pay in home and car insurance every year and then compare that to the cost of a will that protects so much more than your home and car; it protects your business, all your other property and, most importantly, your family.
- “I haven’t decided what to do yet”
Actually, by not having a will, you’re letting the government decide for you. Every province has its own rules about what happens when a person dies without a will—rules which may be quite different than you think. This is the largest financial transaction you will ever have, distributing all your hard-earned property to others. Your assumption of what is going to happen may be wrong. It will be so much better for you to choose what you want to happen. That is the beauty and power of a will. You are able to state your unique wishes and also name who you trust to make sure your wishes are followed. This person is sometimes called a personal representative or an executor or trustee. Your advisors will be able to give you guidance about the sort of person to fulfill this important role.
With monthly bills, car loans, and mortgage payments, it is sometimes hard to appreciate that you do have an “estate” (your home, your vehicles, etc.) to distribute.Having a will is also the only way you have to distribute property to friends, distant family, or to support organizations or diverse causes important to you, such as preserving the environment; helping arts and creativity flourish; supporting education; and encouraging health, activity and recreation. Some people create endowment funds to make the gift last forever. If a lasting legacy appeals to you, you will need a will to accomplish it.
There are other powerful documents that you may want to prepare at the same time. One is an enduring power of attorney, which allows the person you trust to handle your financial matters when you don’t have the ability to do so. Another is a personal directive, which identifies health and living choices and a person to make these decisions on your behalf when you are unable. These two documents are tremendous gifts to your family members who need to care for you and deal with your affairs as you lose the capacity to handle them yourself, whether temporarily or permanently.
- “My family can sort it out”
Really? Your family must comply with what the laws dictate. There is not a lot of flexibility. Not having a will means your family must, in a time of grief and loss, make decisions that are often more difficult and expensive than would be the case where a will exists. Confusion and uncertainty may lead to unintended results. Someone will need to be appointed to deal with it all, and that might not be the person you believe is most capable to do so. All of this can create friction among loved ones that could easily be avoided if you exercise will power.” Make no mistake, some families never recover from this.
- “I don’t have time right now”
Actually, by not having a will, you’re letting the government decide for you.How much time do you have, period? None of us know the answer to that. This is better done now, while you have the opportunity to do so. It is harder to think this through on your own, so make an appointment with someone who will guide you through the process, using questions, and perhaps a questionnaire, that will help you navigate the decisions to be made. S/he can then write out your wishes in a legally enforceable way, taking the mystery and worry away.
I have a theory that fear keeps us from getting our wills in order. If signing a will feels like signing your death warrant, these two ideas may be helpful:
- 100% of people, with or without a will, die.
- British statistics indicate that people with wills have a longer average life expectancy than people who don’t. (Perhaps peace of mind is why people with wills statistically live longer).
Harness “will power.” Focus instead on the power of a will to change lives for the better.
This article was first published in the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta Spotlight magazine (Winter 2012) and is reprinted with the permission of the author.