In the face of loss: Handling an estate and stepping in as sole financial decision-maker

Estate planning

After losing her partner of 32 years, Lorraine was overwhelmed with grief. Then came the challenges of estate settlement and taking on the finances. Here’s how she found direction to get through it.


Lorraine and Shelley were both successful professionals who owned their own businesses—Lorraine in communications consulting and Shelley in event management, the couple had worked hard to build a full, rewarding life together. Living sensibly and making the most of opportunities, everything had been humming along smoothly. When it came to financial responsibilities in their household—as is the case with many busy couples and families—managing finances and the related decision-making sat primarily with one person, and that person was Shelley. It was a role Shelley naturally gravitated towards, and Lorraine was content with her partner looking after that part of their lives.

As Lorraine explains, “It worked for us, she liked doing it, and I was content putting myself in the backseat with those types of decisions. I think we all tend to go to our strengths, and financial management was one of her strengths, so it made sense she was the one who took the lead role with our household finances, investments and everything in that regard.”

For a number of years, the couple had favoured self-directed investing, and they were comfortable with how that process and approach worked for them. With Shelley’s financial knowledge and confidence, they felt self-directed investing was a good fit, and Lorraine was likewise content it was working for their needs and circumstances throughout that period of time. Looking back on this now, as Lorraine shares, “I think part of that was not recognizing at the broader level the benefits and comprehensive planning and support that working with an advisor could offer. In some ways, I think we stuck with what was familiar, and it came down to the fact that we just didn’t know what we didn’t know at the time.”

When personal crisis struck

In 2010, Shelley started experiencing health challenges and she was soon diagnosed with breast cancer. “Right from the start, we remained hopeful,” shares Lorraine. “She went through treatment, and following that, it seemed positive that everything was stable. Then she had a recurrence two years later. Once again, we stayed optimistic and life carried on. The turning point was the third recurrence in 2018.”

As Lorraine describes, with Shelley’s second occurrence, they began discussing the idea of getting an advisor. But after the third occurrence, things unraveled too quickly.

In the thick of it, the emotions and stress were all-encompassing and any decisions felt like too much during their crisis point.

“When you’re faced with incredibly emotional and intensely difficult situations like this, it’s consuming,” shares Lorraine. “It was almost impossible to even think about wrapping my brain around anything financial or estate related in those moments—it’s just not something you want to deal with when your focus and worry is on your loved one.”

In that eleventh hour, Lorraine just had to rely on the fact that their financial and estate details were generally in order, and they had a Will in place, which they believed would provide that level of protection as the foundation.

After eight years of valiantly facing cancer, Shelley passed away in 2018.
two hands holding each other

Taking action through overwhelm

In the wake of Shelley’s passing, Lorraine herself felt completely lost. “Losing a partner after 32 years was the most devastating loss, and for me, this happening later in life was very hard,” she shares. “It was all I could do to cope day-to-day, trying to live without my partner.”

Lorraine quickly realized that she was unprepared for life on her own. “In addition to the emotional impact, when it came to our financials, I didn’t know where to start. If we went through this all again, we wouldn’t have waited so long to get the professional help of an advisor. There are so many intricacies and details that make up your entire financial picture. Faced not only with the process of handling and settling the estate aspects, but taking on the financial responsibilities that I was unfamiliar with—the task was absolutely daunting,” shares Lorraine.

Being an executor means dealing with a mountain of paperwork, and it’s easy to miss deadlines and submissions,” she explains. “One of the first things I did was head to my local RBC branch with the death certificate, and I was connected with someone from RBC Royal Trust. That was my first contact. He explained the options and that it was possible to choose an Agent for Executor to help with some or all of the executor duties, which has been instrumental in navigating this process and easing the burden.”

Around the same time, a close contact also recommended an advisor in Lorraine’s area. “When I was connected with him, I was totally overwhelmed and distraught in trying to pick up the pieces and figure out where they belonged. When he came to meet with me, the first thing he said was: ‘We’re not going to talk about money today; we’re just going to help you. We’re going to help you through your grief and estate challenges.”

Both of these introductions and connections marked a major turning point for Lorraine: “It was in these moments that I could finally take a breath, that I realized ‘Help is on the way,’” she explains.

From there onward, with the help of her advisor and his team, Lorraine has felt continually reassured and supported. As she explains, “I generally knew the value of having an advisor, but I didn’t realize the scope of that relationship.”

 “On the finances side, they took care of everything. I was able to move everything over and gain assurance that my investments and overall plans are properly looked after. Through my advisor, there’s also great support from a team of experts who work in tandem to make sure all of my details are aligned to fit my needs and wishes.”

But for Lorraine, further to the financial peace of mind, what really strikes her is the softer side of the advisor-client relationship. “There’s the huge emotional piece as well. Working with my advisor and his team, it’s not just about the numbers and the finances; it’s my life and what I’ve been through, and my goals,” she explains. “By having an advisor who knows me, knows my wishes, values and aspirations, who acts as my sounding board, I feel confident both for myself and for my younger family members down the road.”

Spreading awareness with her wake-up call

Going through this experience has taught Lorraine that “whether we like having the difficult conversations or not, we never know what could happen. We have to encourage ourselves and others to build an awareness, realizing we may need to take on the burden of handling an estate or take the lead role as financial decision-maker at some point.”

polaroid photo of lorraine travelling
Going through this challenging experience has given Lorraine new perspective on the importance of building an awareness, having open dialogue with loved ones, and being proactive with planning, and the peace of mind it can bring.

It has also broadened Lorraine’s awareness of the value that an advisor and a holistic team approach brings. And having gone through it first-hand, her message for others is strong:

“First, both people in a relationship need to get involved regardless of your family dynamics or personal situation, or you’ll be scrambling at some point. Don’t wait for a crisis or critical illness or when life takes you by surprise,” she emphasizes. “The reality is that in all likelihood, someone in the relationship will one day have to go it alone.”

And while accepting that likelihood is difficult to digest for many, Lorraine thinks people need to think about it differently: “It’s your life and your financials that you’ve worked so hard to achieve, so don’t leave that to chance. Whether it’s your financial, investment or estate planning—or all three—seek help from qualified professionals as early as you can.”

“And if you have the feeling of putting it on the backburner, don’t. If there’s anything you should be making time for, it’s this, especially if you have loved ones you want to leave a legacy to.”

This document has been prepared for use by the RBC Wealth Management member companies, RBC Dominion Securities Inc.*, RBC Phillips, Hager & North Investment Counsel Inc., RBC Global Asset Management Inc., Royal Trust Corporation of Canada and The Royal Trust Company (collectively, the “Companies”) and their affiliate, Royal Mutual Funds Inc. (RMFI). *Member – Canada Investor Protection Fund. Each of the Companies, RMFI and Royal Bank of Canada are separate corporate entities which are affiliates. “RBC advisor” refers to Private Bankers who are employees of Royal Bank of Canada and licenced representatives of RMFI, Investment Counsellors who are employees of RBC Phillips, Hager & North Investment Counsel Inc. and the private client division of RBC Global Asset Management Inc., Senior Trust Advisors and Trust Officers who are employees of The Royal Trust Company or Royal Trust Corporation of Canada, or Investment Advisors who are employees of RBC Dominion Securities Inc. In Quebec, financial planning services are provided by RMFI which is licenced as a financial services firm in that province. In the rest of Canada, financial planning services are available through RMFI, Royal Trust Corporation of Canada, The Royal Trust Company, or RBC Dominion Securities Inc. Estate and trust services are provided by Royal Trust Corporation of Canada and The Royal Trust Company. If specific products or services are not offered by one of the Companies, clients may request a referral to another RBC partner. The strategies, advice and technical content in this publication are provided for the general guidance and benefit of our clients, based on information believed to be accurate and complete, but neither the Companies, RMFI, nor Royal Bank of Canada, nor any of its affiliates nor any other person can guarantee accuracy or completeness. This publication is not intended as nor does it constitute tax or legal advice. Readers should consult a qualified legal, tax or other professional advisor when planning to implement a strategy. This will ensure that their individual circumstances have been considered properly and that action is taken on the latest available information. Interest rates, market conditions, tax rules, and other investment factors are subject to change. This information is not investment advice and should only be used in conjunction with a discussion with your RBC advisor. None of the Companies, RMFI, Royal Bank of Canada nor any of its affiliates nor any other person accepts any liability whatsoever for any direct or consequential loss arising from any use of this report or the information contained herein. In certain branch locations, one or more of the Companies may carry on business from premises shared with other Royal Bank of Canada affiliates. Notwithstanding this fact, each of the Companies is a separate business and personal information and confidential information relating to client accounts can only be disclosed to other RBC affiliates if required to service your needs, by law or with your consent. Under the RBC Code of Conduct, RBC Privacy Principles and RBC Conflict of Interest Policy confidential information may not be shared between RBC affiliates without a valid reason.

® / TM Trademark(s) of Royal Bank of Canada. RBC Wealth Management is a registered trademark of Royal Bank of Canada. Used under licence. © 2023 Royal Bank of Canada. All rights reserved. Printed in Canada

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