You know you should have a will. You know you should keep it updated. Problem is, there's always something more fun to spend your time and money on.
While it's unlikely you'll ever enjoy writing your will, with a little preparation the process can be less painful and expensive than you might think. By putting aside a few minutes to think over and discuss the following issues you'll spend less time with your lawyer and be happier with the final result.
1. Choose the right people
Janet Sim, past chair of the Canadian Bar Association's National Wills, Estates and Trusts Section, says your executor and, if you have minor children, their guardian, are central figures. You need to choose these people carefully and should discuss their roles with them before writing them into your will:
The executor manages the estate, making sure all debts are paid and overseeing who gets what. Most people choose their spouse as executor with a close family member or friend as a backup. Sim says it's a good idea to choose someone with a personal knowledge of your family because they will need to manage money on behalf of your children.
Because this person will take over the care and upbringing of your children, his or her selection is crucial. Sim recommends considering the following:
• Where do you want your children to be raised? They will likely move to the guardian's place of residence rather than the other way around.
• What is your philosophy on issues such as child-rearing, schooling and religion? Choose someone who shares your beliefs as closely as possible.
• Select someone who will work well with your executor. Sim points out the two will have to make many decisions together so compatibility is important.
4. Choose the right payout age
Unless you state otherwise, the law decides when your children will receive their inheritance. This may be sooner than you had in mind -- for example, under Ontario law a child gets all the money at age 18. Sim advises setting up an installment payout: for example, half at age 25 and the balance at 30.
Your children won't suffer in the meantime. It's the executor's job to dole out money as needed for living, education and other expenses. Sim likens it to parents of older children writing cheques to support their children through university without completely handing over the financial reins.
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5. Consider writing a memorandum and a letter of wishes
Personal effects can have significant value, both sentimentally and financially. Think of family heirlooms like a grandfather clock, Grandma's piano or collections of art or jewelry. While Sim says you can write these items into your will, it may be better to put together a memorandum outlining who gets what. This way you can make changes without having to rewrite your will.
She says that for guardians, a letter of wishes has a similar effect. While not legally binding, it provides guidance about your hopes for your children and, like a memorandum, can be easily changed to reflect changing circumstances.
6. Talk about it with your kids
While death (especially your own) may not be the first thing you want to discuss with your children, Sim says a family conference can be useful, especially for families with older children. She says potentially thorny issues, such as who gets the family cottage, can sometimes be cleared up simply by having an open discussion and letting your children express their wishes ahead of time. "There may be one or two who really want [the cottage] and one or two who don't," Sim explains, "so you set it up that A and B get the cottage but C and D get something else of equal value."
7. Get the final word
Make sure you have yours. Don't avoid making a will. If you've been putting it off because you don't have a lawyer, ask a friend for a referral or visit the Canadian Bar Association's lawyer referral site.
8. Is it expensive?
If you're not sure how much it'll cost, just ask, Sim says. Prices vary depending on your location and the complexity of your will, but any lawyer will tell you up front whether they will charge a set or hourly fee and what their hourly charge is.
"It's money well spent," says Sim. "If you get it done properly it should be a document that will last you, more or less, a lifetime." She adds that the peace of mind it affords you and the way it makes your family feel to know you thought of them are two of the best reasons to have a will.
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