Ask an advisor

If getting a will seems like a daunting, confusing process, you're not alone. However, preparing your estate can be as simple as spending a short time planning and meeting with your lawyer. Kristin Ailsby-Wood (BA '96), a lawyer with Davidson & Williams Barristers and Solicitors in Lethbridge and a member of the U of L Planned Giving Advisory Committee, demystifies the process with the answers to a few common questions:

Q: What information do I need to provide?
A: Too often, people think they need lists of assets, bank account numbers and financial statements before they move forward with making a will. Ailsby-Wood notes that misconception actually prevents people from beginning what is a very simple process.
"People think they need to do so much work before they go see their lawyer. That perception prevents them from going to see a lawyer in the first place. In actuality, will planning starts with three simple details: what you own, how you own it and what you hope to achieve with your will.

"Many clients often think they need to bring lists of accounts, addresses, details about their investments and tax-related information. While this information is helpful, it's not required. I'd rather my clients prepare for the first meeting by talking with their spouse and their families about what is important to them and why. In your initial lawyer consultation, you lawyer will discuss what you want to achieve and how that aligns with what you own. A perfect plan is not necessary before making an appointment to see a lawyer. Let us help organize your thoughts and create that plan."

Q: Do I even need a lawyer to prepare a will?
A: The short answer? No. But, Ailsby-Wood issues a caution about self-prepared wills or on-line legal will kits.
"We have found that when people prepare their own will, things hardly ever go smoothly after they pass away. The clients' intentions are sometimes very unclear and the estate is typically difficult to administer. Working with a lawyer will ensure you understand what a will does and how it affects what you own or don't own. A lawyer will also ensure that all of the formal requirements are satisfied."

Q: What can I expect at the first meeting with my lawyer?
A: "Expect your lawyer to review what you own, how you own it and how your death will or will not affect it. First meetings are typically about information sharing – your lawyer learns their clients' goals and the clients learn about their legal obligations and the effect a will has on their different kinds of assets. Lawyers will typically walk their clients through decisions like choosing an executor, choosing a guardian and they'll identify important factors that might not be on the top of their client's minds, but that could affect their will (ie: former spouses, blended families, assets outside of the jurisdiction).
By the end of the meeting, you'll have a clear picture of the shape your will will take and you'll be in a position to make any decisions you hadn't prior to the meeting."

Q: What if I want to leave a gift to charity in addition to ensuring my family is cared for in my will?
A: Philanthropy is a powerful way to ensure you leave a legacy after your death. Legacy gifting is one way to ensure your will not only reflects your desire to leave your family in good care, but also reinforces your passions and goals. Ailsby-Wood notes a will should be a balance of priorities. And, most importantly, don't shelve the idea of legacy gifting because your estate is not significant.

"A lot of people think they don't have enough to give. No matter how large or modest a person's estate is, the will doesn't have to be all family and no philanthropy. There are ways that lawyers and other professional advisors can help their clients achieve both. A well-structure estate plan can give people more philanthropic power than they knew they had. It can be very satisfying."

Q: How do I choose the right person for executor and guardian?
A: "An executor will carry out the terms of your will. People often think they need to choose an executor with a great deal of financial savvy, but that's not so. Look for three key characteristics in an executor: honesty, availability and common sense. Choose someone you trust to understand your directions and carry them out. A guardian will serve as decision-maker for your underage children. If you have underage children, you should look for a person who will focus on the best interests of your children and meet each child's emotional and financial needs."

Q: How do I decide who gets what in my will?
A: "There are legal obligations that affect how you can delegate the proceeds of your estate. A lawyer will help clarify what those obligations are and how they impact distribution of the estate."

Q: When should I update my will?

A: "If you've experienced a big life change, it's probably time to update your will. Things like marriage, having children or grandchildren, retirement and significant changes in your assets are all occasions to check with your lawyer whether any will changes are necessary."

Q: Is drafting a will expensive?
A: Don't let the cost of a will be a deterrent to getting one. Ailsby-Wood notes many lawyers not only charge reasonable fees, but are willing to offer payment plans or other arrangements to ease any financial burden.
"A will is an invaluable document which not only affords you peace of mind that your family will be cared for after your death, it ensures a simple and straight-forward process for those dealing with your estate."

Q: What are the benefits of a will?
A: "First and foremost, a will provides peace of mind – the assurance that the family you love will be provided for once you're gone. People work hard to generate wealth, as well as family and community connections, and a will enables people to share that wealth – and their priorities – with those they love. A will makes good sense by helping avoid various negative tax consequences, gives structure and certainty to your plans, and ensures the decisions you've made will be honoured at your life's end."