Why prepare a will

Myth or fact?

Your estate goes to the government if you die without a will.
  • Myth
  • Fact

A will is a legal document that sets out what will happen after you die to (most of) your property and any minor children. Preparing a will can ensure the things you own go to the people you want. And those close to you can feel confident they’re respecting your wishes.

Five reasons to prepare a will

A will helps those you leave behind

"My sisters both want me to leave them my opal ring. It belonged to our mother and is a family heirloom. Unless I say in a will who the ring should go to, I just know there’ll be a fight about it later." 

– Maria, Nanaimo

A will is a map for those you leave behind. Having a clear statement of your wishes gives you some control over who gets what after you’re gone. And it helps your loved ones feel confident they’re carrying out those wishes. Knowing your intentions will save them time, stress and money at a difficult time. 

A will lets you pick someone you trust to handle your affairs

Preparing a will lets you choose an executor. This is a person who carries out the instructions in the will. 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. It's an important job, and by making a will you can pick someone you trust to handle the role. 

If you’re a parent, you can also appoint a guardian to care for any children under age 19 after your death. You can leave instructions for a trust, if necessary, to hold the children's part of the estate.

Without a will, you lose control over who gets your property

Without a will, those close to you will be left guessing about what you would have wanted. With no proof of your wishes, the law kicks in. Your property is divvied up according to rules set out in the Wills, Estates and Succession Act

The law may not reflect your wishes about who you want to inherit your property. For example:

  • If you have a spouse but no children, your estate will pass to your spouse.

  • If you have a spouse and children — all of whom are also your spouse’s children — your spouse will get the first $300,000 of your estate and half of what’s left over. The other half will be divided equally among the children. 

  • If you have no spouse or children, your estate will be distributed to descendants, parents, or other relatives. If no relatives can be found, the estate will go to the government.

If you die without a will, someone may need to apply to court to become administrator of the estate. Once approved, the administrator has the authority to distribute your assets. The administrator is often a spouse or adult child. If no one steps forward, the Public Guardian and Trustee may apply. 

"My sister Susan died without a will. A year before, she told me what she wanted done with the things she owned. A valuable painting she owned was supposed to go to me. But without a will, there’s no way to prove it. So everything is going to her daughter, Amy." 

– Janet, Vernon

Under the law, you don’t have to prepare a will. But it’s a good idea. Preparing a will helps ensure fairness, accuracy, and peace of mind all around. It makes sure your wishes are respected and your loved ones are taken care of.

A will is part of planning for your passing

"My wife died suddenly. She’d always been clear that she wanted to leave all her things to me and the kids. So she left us everything in her will. But most of her wealth was in two investment properties. She held these jointly with her parents because they’d pitched in a bit of money to help her. She had no idea that the hard-earned money she’d put in herself would flow to her parents (not to me and the kids!) when she died. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left for the will to deal with.” 

– Steve, Richmond

A will deals with your estate. But there are some assets that are not considered estate assets.

Property held in joint tenancy

A will generally only covers property you own exclusively, not property you share. So, for example, property you own in joint tenancy with someone else — such as a home or a joint bank account — generally isn’t inherited through a will. When you die, such shared property usually goes to the surviving joint tenant(s). In most cases, this property isn’t included in your estate. It’s said to “pass outside the will.” 

Another type of jointly-held property

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. You can gift your share of the property to someone else through your will. 

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. An exception is if you’ve named the estate as the beneficiary. Common examples are life insurance policies or retirement benefit plans. When you die, the bank or trust company 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 name (or designate) a beneficiary of these kinds of assets in your will (or a codicil) 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. 

A will is part of planning for your future

A will is only used after you die. There are other planning documents you can put in place to plan for unexpected events, such as if you have an accident or become ill.

A power of attorney and a representation agreement are documents that can be used while you’re alive but not capable of handling your affairs yourself. 

With a power of attorney, you can authorize someone to take care of financial and legal matters for you. 

With a representation agreement, you can name someone to assist you with health care and personal care matters. A representation agreement can also cover routine financial and legal matters.

A living will is not a legal document in British Columbia. The term has been used to describe a person’s wishes for their health care treatments, and particularly treatments they don’t want in an end-of-life situation. In Canada, there are different documents that can be used to express your instructions for end-of-life care.

The next step

Decided to make a will? Learn the steps involved in preparing one.

  • Reviewed in April 2020
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 5 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Stephen Hsia, Fasken

Stephen Hsia

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