Preparing your will

What are my rights?

Do I have to give everything I own to my spouse and children in my will?
  • Yes
  • No

You can make a will on your own, or have a lawyer or a notary public help you. There are rules that must be followed, no matter how simple the will. Learn how to prepare a will that’s valid under the law. 

During the pandemic

Are you writing your will during the current coronavirus pandemic? In preparing your will during coronavirus, we walk you through important things to consider at this time. As well, we provide tips for how to sign and witness a will safely.

What you should know

Who can prepare a will

The person making a will is referred to as the will-maker. To make a will, the will-maker must:

  • be age 16 or over

  • be mentally capable of making a will

  • freely agree with what the will says when they sign it (if it’s proven in court that someone pressured the will-maker to sign, the will won’t be valid)

You need to be mentally capable of making a will for it to be legal. You must understand:

  • the nature and effect of the will

  • in a general way, the extent of the property you own that can be distributed through the will

  • how property will be distributed

  • the implications for the people who are to receive property, as well as the legal and moral claims of certain other people you haven’t named — for example, that in leaving your child out of the will, you appreciate the effect of that decision

Your capability can be affected by illness, an accident, or drug treatment.

Try to prepare a will when you’re still in good health

By law, you need to be mentally capable of making a will. If it’s proven you were not capable, the instructions in that will can’t be followed.

When you should prepare a will

You can prepare a will at any time. But it’s especially sensible to do so when you marry or start a family, or if you own or inherited significant assets, like a home. If you want to leave your belongings to the special people in your life, it’s a good idea to have a will. 

Requirements of a valid will

If a will is proven not to be valid in court, then it can’t be followed. And all your work is for naught. 

For a will to be valid, it must be in writing. It can be typed or handwritten. You must also date it when you sign it.

Typically, a will has several sections:

  • Appointing an executor. The first section of the will appoints one or more executors. This is the person responsible for carrying out the instructions in the will. The will should say what the executor can and can’t do.

  • Distribution of the estate. The will says who receives your assets and personal belongings, and under what conditions. The people you give assets to are called beneficiaries

  • Minors. In your will, you should name a guardian for any minor children you have, and provide some money for the guardian to cover the costs of raising them. You should also create a trust for gifts you leave to any minor beneficiaries. Otherwise, their share of the estate may need to be paid to the Public Guardian and Trustee, who will hold onto it for them in trust until they turn 19. 

  • Other details. The will can include other details, as you wish and depending on your circumstances.

  • Signatures. The last section of the will includes the signatures of the will-maker and witnesses.

Your will should be specific

"I have no spouse or children of my own. I want to leave my belongings to my niece after my death. In my will, I wrote her full name and relationship to me: '...to give the residue of my estate to my niece, Ada Chen....'" 

– Lin, Vancouver

Your instructions in the will should be crystal clear. Avoid vague statements like “I wish to leave everything to my family members” or "I leave everything to my best friend." 

It’s usually a good idea to say exactly who the beneficiaries are, by name. But consider what will happen if circumstances change. For example, you may say in your will “I give the residue of my estate to my grandchildren Francis and Javier.” If you have more grandchildren, and don’t update your will, your other grandchildren will miss out. You may choose to say “I give the residue of my estate to all of my grandchildren who are alive at the date of my death.

“I want my son Michael to get my grandfather’s gold watch which was handed down to me. In my will, I included that gift: '...to transfer my Omega gold watch to my child, Michael Cortez…'"

– Paulo, North Vancouver

You don’t need to write down every item you own. You only need to be specific if you want to give a particular asset (such as your home or an item of sentimental value) to a particular person. Or you may want to leave a specific amount of cash to someone. 

The amount left over after debts and taxes are paid and specific gifts are distributed is called the residue of the estate. In the will, you say who gets the residue, and how much.

"In his will, Grandpa gave a $20,000 gift to each of my brothers Kevin and Jojo. The residue was to go to me. The estate was worth $100,000, so I thought I’d end up with way more than my brothers. But it turns out Grandpa had a huge tax debt that he never paid. After the executor paid out Kevin and Jojo’s gifts, the tax debt, and lawyer fees, I was only left with about $5,000 in residue."

– Zadie, Port Hardy

What your will does not include

"A dear friend of mine got sick and asked if I could help out with simple tasks like groceries and paying bills. She chose to add me to her everyday bank account as a joint holder. This made handling the money easier. But she was also really grateful for my help. She wanted me to have the money in this bank account when she passed away. When she died, the money in the joint bank account passed to me.” 

– Sara, Powell River

A will doesn't deal with everything you own.

Property held in joint tenancy

It doesn’t cover property you own, for example, in joint tenancy with someone else, such as a home or joint bank account. When you die, any property you own as a joint tenant usually becomes the property of the surviving joint tenant(s). In most cases, this property isn’t included in your estate. It’s said to “pass outside the will.”

Tenants-in-common

You can also own property with someone else as a tenant-in-common. When you die, your share doesn’t automatically go to the other owner. 

Say you own a family cottage with your siblings. If owned as tenants-in-common, you  can pass your own share to whomever you want, through your will. Your share won’t automatically go to your other siblings when you die.

Property where a beneficiary is designated

If you’ve designated a specific beneficiary to receive proceeds from an asset, this asset won’t be included in your estate, either. The exception is if you name your estate as the beneficiary. Common examples are life insurance policies or retirement benefit plans. When you die, the bank or trust company directly transfers the asset, or pays it out, to the person you named.

Designating a beneficiary

The proceeds of life insurance policies and benefit plans don’t form part of your estate. Even so, you can choose to designate (name) a beneficiary of these kinds of assets, either in your will or in the policy itself. What if you change your mind and want a different person to receive the proceeds? Any new designation you make will replace any designations you made earlier.

Who you can leave your estate to 

You’re generally free to leave your estate to whomever you want. Many people choose to give their money and things to family members, relatives, charities, or friends.

Consider all possibilities

What if your spouse dies before you? Are you likely to have more children or grandchildren in the future? What do you want to happen if one or more of your children don’t survive you?

Be aware though that your spouse or child can dispute your will in court if they feel you haven’t adequately provided maintenance and support for them. Spouse includes a common-law spouse. That’s someone you’ve lived with in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years. A separated spouse can’t dispute your will. 

Relatives other than a spouse or a child generally can’t ask the court to re-write the will simply because it’s unfair. But they may be able to challenge will for other reasons.

Leaving a spouse or child out of your will

If you want to leave a spouse or child out of your will, explain this in a separate document or letter you keep with your will. You need to show that you’ve at least considered them and your obligation to provide for them. This doesn’t guarantee they won’t receive something if they dispute the will in court. If you’re considering this option, you should seek legal advice.

Wishes for funeral services, burial, or cremation

Most wills don’t cover details relating to the funeral service, burial, or cremation. Some do. You should discuss your preferences with your executor or family. Be aware that any wishes you express about your desired funeral or memorial service won’t be binding on the executor, even if expressed in your will.

If you write your preference for burial or cremation in your will, that preference is binding on the executor — except if following it would be unreasonable, impracticable, or cause hardship. The same applies if you set out your preference for burial or cremation in a contract for cemetery or funeral services. But if you express your preference in another way, such as through a letter or simply telling a loved one, that’s not legally binding.

Prepare your will

Step 1. Choose your executor

The executor is the person you name in your will to carry out your instructions. They locate all of your property, pay any debts and funeral costs, prepare the final tax return, and distribute the rest of the estate as the will specifies.

Most people ask a family member or close friend to be their executor. You can also ask a lawyer, a notary public, a private trust company, or the Public Guardian and Trustee. There are a number of things to consider when choosing an executor.

Choosing co-executors

You may choose two or more people to act together as co-executors. Usually, co-executors must act jointly, unless your will says otherwise. 

Step 2. Decide who you want to give your property to

Your next decision is to choose your beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are the people to whom you give your things. 

You may decide to give specific gifts, such as an amount of money or a specific item to a person you name. For example, you may decide to give a piece of jewellery to a niece.  

You will also name one or more residual beneficiaries. These are the people who get the residue of the estate. The residue is whatever is left once the executor has paid all debts, expenses, and taxes, and distributed any specific gifts. 

You also need to decide on one or more alternate beneficiaries in case your first choice(s) to get the residue of the estate dies before you do or at the same time. 

Step 3. Write the will

With good do-it-yourself materials, you can write a simple will. The will can take care of basic concerns, such as leaving a home, investments, and personal items to loved ones.

DIY will

You can create a simple will with MyLawBC, a website from Legal Aid BC. This online resource guides you to prepare a simple will through a set of questions.

Another option for a DIY will is Self-Counsel Press, a publisher of do-it-yourself guides on legal topics, including some guides on preparing a will in Canada.

Having your will prepared by an experienced estates lawyer or notary public is the safest way to avoid mistakes. Knowing your will is properly drafted can give you peace of mind. You can be confident your affairs will be handled according to your wishes. And, as is highlighted here, you won't be around to fix things if there's a problem.

Notaries can prepare simple wills. Getting advice from a lawyer is particularly important when there are features such as a blended family, a charitable gift, property outside of British Columbia, a family business, a desire or need to hold property in trust for someone (such as a minor), or a wish to leave certain people out of your will.

Getting professional help to prepare a basic will isn’t as expensive as you might think. Ask an estates lawyer or notary how much it will cost. You should be able to get some free estimates. Feel free to shop around.  

Step 4. Sign the will

For a will to be valid, it must be signed on the last page by the will-maker. 

(If you can’t sign the will because of illness or disability, you can ask someone to sign it for you. That person must sign in front of you, and in front of the two witnesses.)

The signature must be witnessed

You must sign the will (or acknowledge the signature as yours) in front of two witnesses. The two witnesses must then sign the will in front of you. You and the witnesses should initial each page of the will in front of each other. 

The witnesses don’t need to read the will. All they need to do is watch you sign your name to it, and sign it themselves in front of you.

Electronic witnessing

Previously, two witnesses had to be physically present to watch you sign your will, in order for the will to be valid. Now, you and your witnesses can be in each other’s electronic presence. See our information on preparing your will during coronavirus to learn what’s required when a will is witnessed electronically.

Who can be a witness

The two witnesses must be age 19 or over.

It’s good practice for the witnesses not to be people — or the spouses of people — who are executors or beneficiaries under the will. That said, a witness may be able to receive a gift under a will. The witness must apply to court and show you intended to make the gift to them. If the court isn’t satisfied, the witness can’t receive the gift. Either way, the remainder of the will isn’t affected.

Step 5. Keep your will safe

There are certain things you can do to keep your will safe and make life easier for your executor. 

Store your will in a safe place

Under the law, a lost will is considered to have been destroyed and cancelled. You should store the original will somewhere fireproof, waterproof, and tamper-proof. 

Consider registering your will

You can choose to register your will with the provincial government’s wills registry. While the law doesn’t require this step, it’s a good idea. It lets others know where the original copy of your will is kept. To register your will, you need to file a wills notice with the wills registry. This is a form that says you’ve prepared a will and indicates where it’s kept. You don’t provide a copy of the will to the wills registry.

Tell your executor where you keep your will

Your executor needs to be able to access your original will easily after your death. Also, consider giving them their own notarized copy of the will.

Record what you own and owe

It’ll make life easier for your executor. For example, record your bank accounts, retirement plans, insurance policies, real estate, and pension benefits. Note any items that are owned in joint tenancy or which name a specific beneficiary. These are dealt with outside the estate, so the executor doesn’t have to manage them.

Common questions

How can I make the job easier for my executor?

You can help your executor by:

  • Registering your will, and telling them where the original is kept. Keep it somewhere where your executor can easily access it.

  • Keeping an up-to-date, detailed record of all that you own and owe. For example, record your bank accounts, retirement benefit plans, insurance policies, real estate, and pension benefits. Note any items that are owned in joint tenancy or which name a specific beneficiary. These are dealt with outside the estate, so the executor doesn’t have to manage them.

  • Explaining your plans to family members, the beneficiaries, or anyone who may be expecting a share of the estate. Talking with them now will prevent problems later.

  • Reviewing your will and your choice of executor every few years or when your circumstances change.

  • Updating the will if there are any changes.

Do I need to write a new will if I move between provinces?

It’s always a good idea to write a new will if you move out of province. If someone dies in BC but had a valid will in another province, the executor may be able act on the will. But the process may be more complicated.

Can I change my will?

You can prepare a new will at any time. Or you can change the existing one by signing a separate document, called a codicil. Learn how to change or cancel your will.

What is a living will?

A living will is not a legal document in British Columbia. The term, commonly used in the US, describes a person’s wishes for their end-of-life medical care. This is different from a will, which describes what happens after someone has passed away. In BC, you can sign a representation agreement or an advance directive. With these documents, you can get help with health care decisions you may face down the road, if you can’t make them yourself. 

Who can help

With preparing a will

Notaries Public
A notary public can help with making most types of wills.
Access Pro Bono Wills Clinic
Help for low-income people over 55 and those with terminal illnesses in preparing a will.
UBC Law School's Student Advice Program
Clinics offer free help preparing certain types of simple wills to qualifying clients.

  • Reviewed in September 2020
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 13 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Stephen Hsia, Fasken

Stephen Hsia

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