Estate lawyer Doris Bonora, ’86 LLB, says the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been the push many of her clients needed to change or finalize their wills. She estimates her workload has increased by 25 per cent since the pandemic began.
Bonora, an Edmonton partner with law firm Dentons, thinks the impetus in part might be pandemic-related worry. “But in times like these, focusing on what you can control gives you a little bit of peace of mind. And estate planning is something you can finish up.” She is not the only estate specialist with an increased workload due to COVID-19.
Now that the pandemic has precluded most in-person meetings (though some are mandatory), lawyers have had to be creative when finalizing these important documents. After three decades as an estate lawyer, Rhonda Johnson, ’86 BA(Hons), ’90 MBA, ’90 LLB, recently had her first outdoor will signing, complete with a parking lot meeting, hand sanitizer and physical-distancing protocols.
Johnson, an Edmonton partner with law firm Duncan Craig, says wills are tough at the best of times. “It’s an emotionally overwhelming experience to do your will,” she says. “But I think one thing this pandemic has done is show people that when your busy life slows down, you can focus on those important things.”
Despite the importance of a document that decides what will happen to your assets and possessions, just over half of Canadian adults say they have no will in place. (One quarter insist they don’t need one because they’re “too young.”)
Bonora and Johnson offer these tips when it comes to creating or updating a will in these times:
Tip 1: Pandemic protocols shouldn’t interfere. Bonora and Johnson say there are creative ways to get your will drafted and signed that won’t violate physical-distancing guidelines. Discuss your wishes with your lawyer over the phone or video chat. Once the document is ready for you to sign, find two witnesses — neither your beneficiaries nor the spouses of beneficiaries. Although witnesses have to be physically present, they could observe your signature through a window.
Tip 2: Take other steps until the crisis is over. If you have no will, a better-than-nothing option is to write one entirely in your own handwriting and without witnesses — also known as a holograph will. Although holograph (sometimes called holographic) wills are completely legal, Bonora says they can create problems.
“People write things like, ‘Make sure you give something to the little ones,’” Bonora says. “But who are ‘the little ones’?” A will that lacks clarity can also lead to lengthy and expensive legal actions. “I like to say to people, ‘It’s never a problem for you,’” Bonora says. “It’s the people you leave behind that have to deal with it.”
Tip 3: Pick an executor you trust. Your executor (known as a personal representative in Alberta) must be calm in an emotional storm, responsible for distributing your estate and filing your final taxes. “Pick someone organized and level-headed,” Johnson says. You should also name an alternate in case your executor is not available. Make sure both of these people are comfortable in this role.
Tip 4: Write your will as if you were to die tomorrow. Bonora urges clients to consider their wishes right now. “I think people do get caught up in, ‘Oh, I have to have the perfect solution before I even put pen to paper,’” she says. The important thing is to get your wishes down now. You can always change your will later.
Tip 5: Think about the values you want to pass along. A will is not just about who receives your assets but what you want to say to the world, Johnson and Bonora say. Giving to a charity, for instance, can demonstrate what was important to you while potentially leaving your name attached to something for generations, like a scholarship. Charitable giving can also bring favourable tax breaks to your estate. There may be other benefits. “Families that encourage philanthropy have children who do better in terms of managing the wealth they receive,” says Bonora.
Tip 6: Leave “breadcrumbs.” Johnson urges clients to give their executors a “head start” by putting bank information and passwords in a secure location they can access after your death. Although your executor will need to produce a death certificate, will or other documents to get access to your assets, laying out all your financial information in one place can save them time.
Tip 7: Remember your personal directive and power of attorney. Your will covers your affairs after you die, but what if an accident or illness renders you unable to make your own decisions? Johnson and Bonora bundle two other documents into their estate services — a personal directive, which gives someone power to make medical and other important decisions on your behalf if you can’t (for example, about life support), and an enduring power of attorney, which allows someone to make financial decisions.
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