Challenges for surviving family and friends of a person who dies without a Will include more than just who gets the funds, explains Leanne Kaufman.
Fewer than half of Canadians have a Will, and many of them say it’s because they don’t know where to start, according to a 2022 survey by Ipsos for RBC Wealth Management.
The problem can be easily rectified, says Leanne Kaufman, president and chief executive officer of RBC Royal Trust, which is part of RBC Wealth Management. “I think everyone should have a Will, no matter how small your estate is and no matter how young you are. If you don’t, it’s just so much more complicated for the people you leave behind.”
When actor Anne Heche died after a car accident in August 2022 without a Will, it fell to her 20-year-old son to file a petition in a Los Angeles court, leaving it to the judges to decide whether to designate him as administrator of her estate.
Prince, as the artist was generally known, died in 2016, leaving an estate valued at US$156 million, but no Will. He had been divorced twice and he had numerous siblings and half-siblings. No one knows how much he intended to leave to whom. “I think there were something like 42 people who came forward with claims at the time,” Kaufman says.
Challenges for the surviving family and friends of a person who dies without a Will can reach ordinary people, not just celebrities, and those issues can extend beyond questions of who gets the funds, she adds. Difficulties can range from not knowing who the legal guardian of the children will be if both parents die unexpectedly, to not having a plan for distributing funds effectively.
“Without a Will, any inheritance the children receive would become 100 percent available the moment they reach the age of majority, but most people would want there to be a plan,” Kaufman says.
The RBC survey found that many Canadians hesitate to prepare their Wills, even though they recognize that having one is important. More than half of those surveyed said they believe a consequence of not having a Will is that no one will know their wishes, and 56 percent recognize that it can lead to families squabbling over who inherits what.
Ipsos conducted the survey among 2,001 Canadians from April 22, 2022, to April 25, 2022. It is considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, representing what the results would have been if all working Canadian adults had been surveyed.
The research shows that 70 percent of Canadians between ages 18 and 24 do not have a Will, Kaufman says.
“What’s more alarming to me is that in the group between 35 and 54 years of age, 66 percent said they don’t have a Will,” she adds, which is when people buy houses and cars and may accumulate savings.
Not having a Will can also put up roadblocks to outcomes those Canadians hoped to achieve, Kaufman notes. “We found that 53 percent of people in the 18- to 34-year-old age group want to leave some funds to charity. Without a Will, there’s no way they can ensure that their estate can do any charitable giving.”
It’s also noteworthy that while nearly half of Canadians do have Wills, only 30 percent have an overall estate plan, according to the Ipsos survey.
An estate plan includes a person’s Will, but it involves other steps, such as naming an executor (known as an estate trustee in Ontario and liquidator in Quebec) and designating someone to have power of attorney to make financial or health decisions if a person becomes incapacitated.
Estate planning can also involve organizing beneficiary designations for insurance policies and registered plans and setting funeral arrangements: it’s generally an outline where you make your wishes clear. While there are legal mechanisms in place when people die without a Will, those cases fall to the courts and cost considerable time and money, Kaufman says.
Wills and estate plans do not need to be complicated, Kaufman says. RBC offers a free Will Planning Guide to help people get started, and it can connect people with the right professionals to get a Will done.
At the extreme end, there are “holograph” Wills, which can be handwritten on, well, just about anything. One was the Will of Saskatchewan farmer Cecil George Harris in 1948, who got pinned under his tractor and carved his dying wishes into the fender: “In case I die in this mess I leave all to the wife.”
Another holograph Will, also in Saskatchewan, was written on a napkin by a man who thought he was having a heart attack in a fast-food restaurant.
The courts held both Wills valid, Kaufman says.
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos survey conducted April 22 – April 25, 2022 on behalf of RBC Royal Trust. For this survey, a sample of 2001 Canadians ages 18+ was surveyed online. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Canadian population according to census parameters. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ± 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, of what the results would have been had all Canadians working adults been surveyed.
This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail.
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