Before I had kids, I didn’t think I needed a will — my husband and I didn’t own a home and my spouse was already the beneficiary on my biggest asset at the time, my RRSP. Owning major assets and having kids changes everything, though — and it means you should have a will.
Most of us think our assets (and our kids) will automatically go to a spouse or next of kin, but that’s not always the case. In Alberta, for example, your spouse is only entitled to half your assets — the rest would go to your children. And in some provinces, common-law spouses have no rights. Die before your divorce is finalized and your assets could go right to your ex. And if both you and your spouse die, your kids could end up in limbo, or living with someone you didn’t choose to raise them.
If you want to make sure everything goes where you want it to, then you need a will. Making one isn’t complicated — but it does take some thought, discussion and professional help. Here are five tips to get you started:
1. Decide who gets what
It’s hard to do, but think about what you want to happen to your estate when you die. Your will should spell out these four main things:
- What assets you want distributed
- Who your beneficiaries are
- The guardian for your children (if they’re minors)
- The executor — the person or organization you want to administer your estate and carry out your wishes
2. Use a professional
While you can pick up a will kit and do this yourself, I don’t recommend it — sure, it might be cheap, but there are so many legal holes that can pop up in a DIY job. Errors and mistakes could mean your will won’t hold up in court — worse, your kids and/or your spouse could get a raw deal. Getting a lawyer to make a will for you can cost as little as $300. You can use a will kit to get you started and cut down on lawyer fees — fill it in, answer the questions and then take it to a lawyer to review and finalize.
3. Choose a guardian for your kids
Hands down, choosing a guardian for your kids in the event both of you die is the hardest thing about making a will. Imagining someone else raising your kids is emotional and sad, but it’s also really important. You should make sure you talk to your chosen guardians about the role you want them to play — if they aren’t comfortable doing it, you should know up front.
4. Talk to your adult kids
Dealing with small kids is one thing, but leaving money to your adult kids can be trickier. Battles can erupt over a parent’s assets and they can put a huge divide between family members. Talk to your them about your will and communicate your intentions. If you’re not splitting the estate equally, explain why. And if you have a cottage, talk to them about how they want it dealt with — if one child loves your cottage and the other wants it sold, that could cause a lot of emotional strife when the time comes to divvy up assets. Discuss and set expectations early on.
5. Death isn’t the only thing to plan for
An accident or illness can leave you incapacitated and unable to make decisions. While you’re doing your will, think about getting a power of attorney and a living will. A power of attorney gives someone permission to handle your financial matters for you. That person can manage your finances when you can’t, and they’ll also make sure your dependents are provided for. A living will instructs your family and friends on what level of medical treatment you want in case you’re unable to express yourself. Do you want to be kept alive using all possible measures? Or are there limits to how you want to be kept alive? And what kinds of treatments do you want or not want?