Our Views

Bereavement is bad enough

My husband passed away a year ago last month.  We ought to have been prepared.  Two years earlier he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer for which there was “little predictive data”. We chose to be optimistic. When he died due to complications from surgery I was shocked and devastated.

Shock was the protection I needed to get through those first few weeks, but as reality set in grief took its place. It was in this condition that I was catapulted, like so many others in my position, into the surreal state of dealing with my husband’s estate.  If there is any benefit in my experience it is to help others become better prepared.

I have to confess I was ‘fortunate’ under the circumstances. My husband had a valid and current will; our affairs were reasonably straightforward; I had been the ‘chief financial officer’ during our marriage so I was used to managing our finances; and I had the support of the professionals here at my firm whom I trusted as advisors and friends. In theory, I was well equipped to handle my responsibilities as executor.

The reality though was more challenging: There were important choices to make; some with near-term deadlines and long-term consequences. Taxes and probate fees were higher than expected; the settlement process slower (still ongoing).  Family members needed to be consulted. The amount of paperwork felt never-ending and overwhelming. All of this, of course, takes place when one is in the emotionally weakened state of grief (i.e. anxiety, sleeplessness, forgetfulness, etc.)

Through the entire estate settlement process, I kept thinking, “I simply cannot imagine what it would have been like for me had my husband died without a current will.” I begged friends to make sure their families’ estate plans were in order. “Bereavement is bad enough,” I said. “You absolutely do not want to go through this without having everything buttoned down.”

And yet, that is precisely the risk many people are taking according to a study by BMO Financial Group last year: 15% of Canadian baby boomers do not have a will. Nearly half of those aged 45 and older have not reviewed their will in over ten years. That is a terrifying thought.

A lot can happen that can impact one’s estate over a decade:  Businesses are started or sold.  Divorce and re-marriage. Births and deaths.  Change in financial circumstances or asset base. The possible consequence is that what you would intend to have happen upon your passing may differ materially from what actually does; leaving your loved ones dealing with a host of thorny issues when they are the very least able to cope.

A recent high profile example: the estate of author, Michael Crichton who died at age 66 leaving behind a wife who was six month pregnant and an outdated will that had language excluding any new children. A legal fight broke out between family members over whether the baby should be allowed to inherit.  The judge ultimately ruled the child should receive its share of the inheritance but it was a stressful and costly experience that could have been avoided entirely.

Today is Valentine’s Day and Monday February 20th is Family Day (in three provinces).  Do something truly loving for your family this holiday: if you do not have a valid and current estate plan, get one.

Don’t know any estate lawyers?  Ask your general counsel for a referral.  Or your financial advisor. Or call me!  We know a number of good estate planning lawyers we could point you to. Just please, make the call.

Planning your estate may not be fun, but it is truly a loving act.