A will is a legal document that sets out what will happen after you die to (most of) your property and any minor children. While not everyone needs a will, most people do. Preparing a will can ensure those you leave behind are looked after, and that the things you own go to the people you want. And it can help achieve fairness, accuracy, and peace of mind all around.
Six reasons to prepare a will
"All three of my daughters are hoping to get the jewelry that has been in my family for three generations now. And two of them have talked about wanting to live in the family home. I realize if I don’t make a will and set out my wishes clearly, it could set them up for a long fight. That would absolutely break my heart."
– Maria, Nanaimo, BC
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.
As well, if you die without a will, someone may need to apply to court to get the legal authority to deal with your estate. Banks typically insist on this when someone dies leaving behind more than $25,000 in their sole name. The person stepping forward to apply to become the administrator of the estate is often a spouse or adult child. The application involves a lot of paperwork, and takes months to process. If you die without having made a will, your loved ones will have to navigate this additional layer of complexity.
Even worse, more than one person may think they should be the one to take on this role. This could result in hard feelings and perhaps even a court battle.
Here’s the bottom line: preparing a will makes things easier for those you leave behind.
Preparing a will lets you choose an executor. This is the person who carries out the instructions in the will. They arrange the funeral, locate all of your property, pay any debts, 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.
"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."
– Janet, Vernon, BC
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 this BC law.
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. If some or all of your children are not also your spouse’s children, your spouse will get the first $150,000 of your estate and half of what’s left over. In either case, the other half will be divided equally among the children.
If you have children and no spouse, your estate will pass to your children in equal shares (or if any of them have passed away, their share will go to their descendants).
If you have no spouse or children, your estate will be distributed to your parents. If they’re not alive, the rules set out other relatives who would inherit. If no relatives can be found, the estate will go to the government.
These rules might seem pretty reasonable to you. But keep in mind they are one size fits all. There’s no scope for any variation. Let’s say you would like a specific person to have a specific item, or to leave something for a trusted friend, or to make a donation to a charity. The only way to do any of these things is by making a will.
No one wants to think of how a dire turn of events could leave a child without their parents. But tragic things happen. In a will, you can make arrangements for your children should you and the other parent die before the children turn age 19.
You can appoint one or more guardians to care for them. It’s particularly important to name a guardian if you’re a single parent. But couples should do so as well, as no one can predict the future.
In a will, you can also leave instructions for a trust, to hold your minor children's part of the estate. Without creating a trust to hold their interest in the estate, the law says their share has to be paid to the Public Guardian and Trustee. The money is then held in trust for them until they’re 19 years old. By leaving instructions for a trust in the will, you can choose your own trustee to manage your child’s inheritance. The trustee can be the same person you name as the executor (or it can be someone else).
No one wants to consider their own death. It’s depressing. And scary. But as Benjamin Franklin said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
The process of preparing a will can spark important conversations with your loved ones about your wishes. It can lead to talking with the people you choose as your executor and (if you’re a parent) the guardian of your children. You can explain why you’ve chosen them, and share your values and wishes, helping to prepare them for the job ahead, should the need arise.
Half of Canadians don’t have a will. But most recognize they should have one. Preparing a will can give you peace of mind, secure in the knowledge that you’ve taken care of one of life’s most important (and daunting) tasks. Your loved ones can sleep easier as well, knowing there will be a map with clear directions when that difficult day arrives.
The next step
Decided to make a will? Learn the steps involved in preparing one.