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The power of a last will and testament: How your final wishes can make an impact

We know that more than half of Canadian adults do not have a will. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of the notions most commonly expressed by holdouts is that “it’s obvious who will be getting my estate.”

In most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, if you are married with children, there is barely any consistency among Canadian provinces in determining the fate of your estate (defined as all the things you own when you die—homes, investments, vehicles, personal items, everything). You might be surprised that in most provinces the default is not that it all goes to your spouse. And for people living common-law or those who are single, it is far from obvious what would happen to your estate and possessions if you were to pass away suddenly.

All of this is important, but it also misses a significant point: Writing a will allows you to do interesting and creative things with your assets.

Your will does two things: it allows you to make key appointments, like your executor (the person who ensures your wishes are carried out) and guardians for your children, if you have any. It also allows you to describe who will receive what from your estate; this is accomplished through a series of bequests, and the recipients of these bequests are your beneficiaries.

There are three types of bequests: possessions, sums of money and percentages of your estate. All three of these can be used in creative ways to make a difference to people’s lives after you’ve passed on.

For example, have you ever thought about a particular possession of yours and felt that there may be a perfectly appropriate recipient, who could appreciate and treasure that item or collection? You may have a prized piece of sporting memorabilia, a collection of antiques or a piano. You may feel that your friend might appreciate your vinyl-playing turntable more than your spouse who still doesn’t quite understand the enthusiasm for it.

Then there are people in your life to whom you want to show appreciation. Do you have a niece or nephew who could use your help? Perhaps pay for their first year of post-secondary education or fund an experience filled gap-year. What about your friends at the bridge club? Or the ukulele group? There was a wonderful article a few years ago about a cancer victim in the UK who left a bequest to his drinking friends for a fun weekend in Europe, on him.

Perhaps a more significant impact can be made through “planned giving”—that is, putting a charitable bequest in your will. One of the great tragedies of recent years was Aretha Franklin dying without a proper will and watching lawyers fight over her $80-million estate. It was such a sad, missed opportunity, where her will could have set up a trust for aspiring musicians in her hometown of Detroit. An Aretha Franklin music scholarship could have touched thousands of lives, but instead, because she died without a will, the estate will likely be frittered away.

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