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Getting a Will Done in Canada: A How-To Guide

We break down the basics of getting a will in Canada, why it's so important and bust some common myths so you can finally check it off your to-do list in 2024.

Getting a Will Done in Canada: A How-To Guide

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Getting a will can be overwhelming for many parents and involve many unknowns: do I have to pay thousands of dollars to visit a lawyer? Do I create it with my spouse or on my own? Can I do it during nap time, or do I have to go into someone’s office?

Let’s break down the basics of getting a will in Canada and bust some common myths so you can finally check it off your to-do list in 2024.

What is a will?

A will is a legal document that outlines what happens when you pass away, and it appoints three key roles:

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  • An executor to wrap up your estate when you pass away
  • Beneficiaries to receive your assets
  • Guardians for any dependent children or pets

You don’t need to gather tax returns or financial statements to make your will since it doesn’t include any details on your net worth or a list of your assets.

Why do I need a will?

A will is the ultimate act of love for your partner and children - it ensures they know your wishes if you pass, and it cuts down on legal fees, court interference, and red tape.

If you pass away without a will, a government formula in your province will dictate who gets your assets - and as a parent, this likely means that your spouse and children will split your assets, which may not be what you would want.

If there’s no surviving parent and no will in place, then the courts must get involved to appoint a guardian for your children. Think of it as the gift of peace of mind for your partner and your kids.

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How can I create my will in Canada?

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How you create your will depends on your situation and budget, but it’s important to note that visiting a lawyer is not required to create your will. Here are the three most common options:

  • Handwritten will: In most provinces, it’s legal to handwrite your will - in fact, Aretha Franklin had a handwritten will. While it’s the cheapest option, it can be overwhelming (what would I write? What if I leave something important out?).
  • Online will: Online will platforms are like TurboTax for wills. They guide you through creating a will by asking about your life situation, helping you to appoint key roles like your executor, and generating customized documents. They are much more affordable than visiting a professional. Still, they don’t cater to complex situations (for example, creating a Henson trust for a child with a disability) and don’t allow you to get legal advice. They are typically under $100 for a will and usually take less than an hour to complete.
  • Lawyer (or notary in BC/Quebec): A lawyer can offer you legal advice tailored to your situation, and they can draft comprehensive documents that account for things like blended families, foreign property, business interests, and custom wishes. Depending on your city, it typically costs between $800-$1,000 to work with a lawyer, with an hourly fee in future for any updates.

Can I create my will entirely online?

You can create your will online and print the completed document to be signed and witnessed. British Columbia is the only province that allows electronic signatures on wills, so if you live in BC, you can create, sign, witness, and store your document online. In all other provinces, wills must be signed on paper.

Do I need to create my will with my spouse/the other parent?

The short answer is no: wills are like tax returns in that everyone needs one. Typically, spouses will “mirror” their choices (for example, if I pass away, I leave everything to my husband; if he passes away, he leaves everything to me), but some of your choices may differ.

Any joint assets (property, bank accounts, investments) shared with your spouse would automatically transfer to them when you pass away, as would any registered savings accounts or life insurance policies that name your spouse as an individual beneficiary (this is your reminder to double check that the beneficiaries are on those policies/accounts are up to date!).

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What do I need to consider regarding children in my will? 

The most important things to consider when you have children are:

  • Appointing a guardian - if you and the other parent pass away, the guardian will care for your children. This is a tough decision because no one wants to think about not being around for their kids and because you and your partner may disagree (you want your sister; they want their brother). There’s not always a perfect solution here, but appointing someone as guardian means it won’t be left up to the family courts to decide.
  • Appointing as beneficiaries - your will allows you to leave a percentage of your estate to your children now or only if you and your spouse/the other parent have both passed away.
  • Special gifts - do you want to pass on an heirloom or another physical object to your children - for example, your wedding ring, a special piece of art, or a car? Do you want to leave a legacy gift to a charity or cause you support?
  • Age of inheritance - at what age should your children get their inheritance? For example, I’ve stipulated that our daughters would get 50% of their inheritance at age 20 and the rest at age 25. Without a will, they would get everything at 18, and I know I wouldn’t have been responsible enough at that age to put a significant inheritance to good use!

When should I update my will? 

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Wills are not set it and forget it - instead of letting them gather dust in a filing cabinet, review them every year to make sure they reflect your current life situation and wishes. Here are the most common reasons to update your will:

  • You’ve had another child you want to add to the will.
  • You’ve separated or divorced and want to remove your spouse from the will.
  • You’ve moved provinces.
  • You’ve changed your mind about people you’ve appointed in the will, or someone named in the will has passed away and needs to be updated (for example, you want to change your executor)

If you create your will with a lawyer, they can make a “codicil,” an amendment to the document. If you use an online will platform, you will create a new version of the will, which would revoke the prior version.

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What other estate planning tasks should I prioritize as a parent?

A will is just one step towards having a solid end-of-life plan. Another critical step is creating power of attorney documents, which appoint someone to make medical and financial decisions on your behalf.

As the mom of two young daughters, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to consider what happens when you pass away. But having a will in place now means your children are empowered with the information they need when the time comes. If you’re one of the many parents who haven’t checked “get a will” off your list, hopefully, this article empowers you with the information and the confidence to get it done. Your children will thank you.

This article provides information, not legal advice. 

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Author:

Named one of Bay St. Bull’s Women of the Year, Erin Bury is one of Canada’s top entrepreneurs, an active startup advisor and a former marketer and technology journalist.

Erin is the co-founder and CEO of Willful, an online estate planning platform that makes it easy for Canadians to create a will in less than 20 minutes.

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