It is stressful enough for the family when someone passes, without having to search high and low for all their personal documents as well. Particularly, if they are all in different places. The other challenge is when there is only one copy of some important documents and they can’t be found; in that case, your final wishes will be delayed. So what can you do?
Be prepared. We do not have a crystal ball and cannot tell the future. Nobody wants to think of when they will pass, but life happens — all too quickly. I have recounted the story of my wife’s first husband, who died in a helicopter crash. She had an 18-month-old baby and no will. The bank accounts were frozen, the bills kept coming in, and she had no deeds or registration to the house or vehicles. The list went on and on — a very disturbing scenario for all involved.
You don’t know when or how you will pass. Equally as bad, or in some cases even sadder, a medical or mental affliction can strike at any age. It is never too early to discuss your living will. CBC has a great news article on the topic (click here). Furthermore, if there is dementia or Alzheimer’s in your family, once you start displaying some of the attributes of the illness, it is too late to create a will or last testament, unless you go through a battery of tests to make sure you are of sound mind and body.
What will happen if you die without a will?
You will not be alone. Over 57% of Canadians die without a will. If you die without a will, you will die “intestate.” In most places, what will happen is that your assets will be managed by the Wills, Estates, and Succession Act, which means you have no say who gets what. Some provinces and states have a formula on the distribution, depending on if you are married or not and then if and how many children you have, and in some cases, some of your assets will go to your siblings and parents. In some places, common-law spouses do not automatically receive anything. If you have young children and there is no other parent, the court will determine who will raise your children. The real challenge will be that your estate will be held in trust till they turn 18 or 19.
As mentioned earlier, not having a will often will cause delays and unnecessary expenses. The court will appoint someone to tie up your affairs, and there could possibly be fees involved.
There are two things that are essential to take care of as best you can. If you have a spouse or partner, put everything in both of your names and start eliminating debt as soon as possible. If you have major assets, like a house, cars, boats, things like that, you should always register them in both names. When you do this and one of you passes, the “rights of survivorship” kicks in and the ownership goes to the other right away. The same holds true for the deed of the family home. There is a downside to this, depending on your state. For instance, if there is a legal action against one or the other, both will be named in the suit.
- Designate your executor or co-executors right away.
Your executor or co-executors are in charge of administrating your estate, making sure that your beneficiaries receive the assets you have left for them, selling any assets that need to be sold, and dealing with all the paperwork required by the government, including taxes. Thus, your executor(s) need to be responsible, financially savvy and know they have a fiduciary and legal obligation to the estate.
They need to be consulted ahead of designation and, once they accept the responsibility, have a copy or access to where the necessary documents are.
You can change your executor or co-executors if circumstances change.
- Have all your documents and information in two places.
That is right: one in your possession in your home and one with your lawyer. These locations should be shared with your executor(s). Below is a list of the documents you need:
- a list of emergency contacts, phone numbers, and email addresses;
- key contacts you want a notification sent to;
- directives of how you would like to be interred — burial or cremation — and what you would like to have done with the ashes if you choose cremation;
- a copy of your latest bank statement (the key element is that your account number is on it);
- a copy of your birth certificate;
- a copy of your passport;
- a copy of your citizenship card;
- a copy of your brokerage statements (again the important element is the account number(s));
- a copy of your mortgage if you have one;
- a copy of your deed;
- a copy of your marriage certificate;
- a copy of your divorce certificate if there is one;
- a copy of your social security card;
- a copy of your vehicle title(s);
- your will;
- a copy of your insurance policies;
- a copy of your home insurance;
- a copy of your car insurance;
- a copy of any veteran’s papers — discharges and benefits;
- a list of your various sources of income;
- a list of all your pensions and benefits with contact information;
- a copy of your latest tax filing, primarily for your account numbers;
- a list of all the important financial people you work with:
- accountant; lawyer;
- investment advisors;
- personal physician;
- auto, home, and liability insurer;
- life insurance/annuity agent; and
- children or other beneficiaries under your will or trust
- your living will;
- a document outlining your wishes regarding if you consent or not to organ donation;
- your final wishes pertaining to your pets; and
- a list of all your passwords for your computer and online accounts.
Remember, this can a wonderful gift to pass on to your survivors. Anything to ease the pain would be a welcome bonus.