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Book Reviews

Have You Made Your Will? Will and Estate Planning Kit


You Can’t Take It with You

by Sandra E. Foster

Wills for Ontario

by David I. Blotnick

The Canadian Guide to Will and Estate Planning

by Douglas Gray and John Budd

Last year, after I was married and my wife became pregnant, more or less in that order, I had to acknowledge a side of my character I’d been ignoring up till that point – the immature side. Fortunately, I’ve done a lot of growing up since then. I’ve made plans for my child’s education (I’ve decided he’s getting a scholarship) as well as my retirement – it looks like I’m never retiring. But there’s still one adult responsibility I haven’t been able to face yet: what happens after I’m gone?

It’s not just misery that loves company, trepidation loves it too. It turns out I’m not alone in avoiding the unavoidable, which is the message delivered early and often in two books written to help the squeamish and the feckless put their affairs in order. In You Can’t Take It With You: The Common-Sense Guide to Estate Planning for Canadians, financial expert Sandra E. Foster has all us Scarlett-O’Hara-I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow types pegged: “Estate planning and death are difficult subjects for many Canadians to discuss, let alone plan for. It seems to be part of our Western society to deny that death will happen to us, or even to someone close to us.”

The statistics bear this out. Douglas Gray and John Budd, the authors of The Canadian Guide to Will and Estate Planning, stop just short of berating their indolent readers with the fact that only “one out of three adults has a will, which means that two-thirds of the time when people die their wishes are not met.” Their point, and it’s a good one, is that not nearly enough people seem to be taking death seriously.

Both these handy books cover the same ground and cover it thoroughly. Foster’s advantage is that her book, now in its third edition, has a proven track record. Considering its complicated subject matter, You Can’t Take It With You is pretty straightforward reading. And even if it sometimes feels as if Foster, who is a contributor to The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s and a frequent guest on television and radio, is talking to her readers as if they are four-year-olds she still manages not to be unbearably condescending.

There are checklists throughout the book as well as anecdotal examples and answers to frequently asked questions (“How do I know if I should prepare a codicil or prepare a completely new will?”). There is also a glossary explaining basic terms like codicil and intestate as well as more esoteric ones like escheat, which is “the process, if you die without a will and have no living relatives, whereby the provincial government becomes the beneficiary of last resort.” There are practical tips on how to choose the professional you’ll need to help you plan your estate and on the importance of being orderly: “Keeping good records is one of the cheapest (if not simplest) estate planning strategies to implement,” Foster writes.

This sensible book begins, sensibly enough, with a 29-question “Estate Planning Checklist” and the proviso that any “No” or “Unsure” answers may require special attention. Since all 29 of my answers were either “No” or “Unsure” I decided to keep on reading – about pension plans, life insurance, probate fees, trusts, taxes, charitable donations, executors, guardians, and beneficiaries. Foster also takes care to explain how laws differ from province to province.

Of course, not all the information in You Can’t Take It With You will be applicable to everyone – Foster deals with everything from same-sex relationships to gifts of ecologically sensitive lands – but you can skim past the parts that don’t concern you. If you don’t have a business you won’t need the chapter on “business succession planning” or if you don’t have children you won’t need to know about whether you should “give your adult child money now rather than later.”

There’s plenty more in The Canadian Guide to Will and Estate Planning by Gray and Budd, including some features you don’t find in Foster’s book, such as information on how to arrange a burial at sea. (There are a lot of the same features too; even some of the chapter titles are the same.)

Although The Canadian Guide to Will and Estate Planning is written for the layperson, it is written by professionals – Gray is a lawyer, Budd is a chartered accountant – and that has its advantages and disadvantages. The good news is that the authors have a firm and authoritative grip on their material and, having spent part of their time dealing with actual clients, they take nothing for granted. For example, the glossary in this book is more extensive than the one in Foster’s and more apt to define terms everyone should know like probate – “formal proof before the appropriate officer or court that the will presented is the last will of the testator.” This is not a complaint, by the way, since I didn’t know what probate meant.

The less-good news in The Canadian Guide to Will and Estate Planning is in the presentation of its voluminous material. Each chapter of the book begins with an overview, an introduction, lots of short boldfaced sections, advice on where to get more information, a summary, and a list of frequently asked questions. The idea, here, is to make things as clear as possible; the result can sometimes be a choppy, cluttered read.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a practical question not addressed in this detailed book. As with You Can’t Take It With You, the best advice is usually the most commonsensical. In an early section, for example, Gray and Budd point out that “there are different stages in a person’s life… when certain issues may arise that require different estate planning strategies.” They then go on to explain what is required for a person with a young family, a mature family, and an older family. This is a welcome reminder since statistics also show that even those who have a will “often do not review it regularly or modify it based on changing circumstances.”

Perhaps the best part of this book comes at the end, in a series of informative appendixes, including one with contact numbers to key sources of information – like public trustee offices and funeral service associations. Even more valuable is an appendix that includes samples of everything from a codicil to living wills. This is especially helpful for the uninitiated who have no idea what these crucial documents look like.

While both these books do a good job of leading the horse to water, they also acknowledge that when it comes to making it drink, you better see a lawyer or a financial planner or some other legal expert just to be on the safe side. Gray and Budd, in particular, are adamant about the dangers of a self-written will, which “could have many defects and inadequacies that could result in a legal, financial, and administrative nightmare for your family, relatives and beneficiaries.”

Still, there are options for do-it-yourselfers – like Self-Counsel’s Have You Made Your Will? Will and Estate Planning Kit. The kit contains four blank will forms, four living will forms, an estate and business planning guide, and a checklist of things that should be done when a death occurs.

The kit is meant to be filled out in conjunction with Self-Counsel’s Wills series of books, which provide specific information depending upon where you live. (So far there are Wills for Alberta, Wills for British Columbia, and Wills for Ontario in the series.) The kits and the books both begin with disclaimers and the suggestion that it is always wise to get professional advice, but then proceed to show that most people, assuming they are not Donald Trump, are capable of handling the basics themselves.

As for me, I still haven’t gotten around to writing my will. I have my kit open; I just haven’t filled out the forms yet. Reading all this material does serve its purpose, though, it makes you realize you have responsibilities that will outlast you and that that’s not such a bad thing after all.