If there's a will, there's a way
Experts say a will is a crucial estate-planning document

Like many Canadians, Hinda Packard was worried about flying in the wake of the 9-11 events. So just before her recent Florida vacation, she decided to have her will updated.

"It's true what people say. The world has changed," said Packard. "Everyone feels more vulnerable." Packard and her husband had been thinking about updating their wills. The impending trip gave them the perfect excuse.

"When we did our original will six or seven years ago, our situation was much different," said Packard. "For one, our children were both minors. Today Shari is 21, and Reesa is 16 and is almost an adult. Our financial position has also evolved."

According her notary, Dollard des Ormeaux-based Leslie Greenberg, Packard is not alone. "You take as much of a risk driving in your car as you do flying on a plane," said Greenberg. "But you'd be amazed at how many people use a vacation as an excuse to draw up their wills."

According to financial planning professionals, almost any excuse to have a notarized will drawn-up or updated, is a good one.

"There are several reasons that people should have a will," said Greenberg. "The most obvious, is to make sure your wishes are respected regarding the distribution of your assets upon death."

Many people also want to name the person who takes day-to-day care of their minor children if they are no longer around.

"There are also important tax consequences," said Greenberg. "With the proper wording in your will, you can arrange to have your RRSP rolled over into your wife's plan upon your death. But if you don't have a will, the entire amount is included in your spouse's income, which can lead to a huge tax bill."

According to Greenberg, a will, especially if it is notarized, can save descendants a lot of money and hassle down the road.

"Unlike a lawyer's will, or a handwritten will, a notarized will is not subject to probate (approval by a judge), said Greenberg. "Probate takes time, and can cost between $500 and $1,000, while producing a simple notarized will costs between $200 and $250."

When a person dies intestate, (without leaving a will), beneficiaries can be subject to a variety of legal expenses and delays.

Beyond the probate process, beneficiaries would have to apply to the court to name the liquidator of the estate. A liquidator -- known in the rest of Canada as an executor -- supervises the distribution of the deceased's assets. If there are minor children involved, a tutor must be named to look after their interests.

According to Greenberg, it's important to anticipate problems and deal with them in advance. "It's like the old Fram Oil Filter commercials," he jokes dryly. "You can pay me now. Or you can pay me later."

Another potentially serious problem for the loved ones of someone who dies interstate is that in Quebec, if someone dies without a will, their assets are automatically distributed according to the provisions of the province's 1994 Civil Code.

This can present immeasurable hardship for certain families. For example in a typical family of four, if a parent dies, his assets are divided three ways, between his wife and two kids. However, in many cases, it's the wife or surviving spouse - not the children -- who needs the money the most. This is especially true, if the children are young, and the mother requires financial assistance to complete their upbringing.

Alternatively, the spouse could be close to retirement, and the children are in prime earning years. "People tell me that they don't have to worry, the kids will just give the money back to the surviving parent," said Greenberg. "But it doesn't always work out that way."

Ironically, despite the numerous benefits of having a will, the one Greenberg's clients most commonly cite is the peace of mind it brings them knowing their affairs are in order.

"As they are leaving my office, they often give a deep sigh, and tell me that a big weight has been lifted off their shoulders," said Greenberg. "In their hearts they feel they have done the right thing."

So how old are his typical clients? "Mostly between 30 and 80," said Greenberg. "Any younger than that, and they feel like they are indestructible, and will never die."

Greenberg's worst case scenario is when he has to go to a hospital to have a will dictated by a dying patient. "It's not the nicest part of my job," said Greenberg. "But how can you say no?"

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Photo caption: Hinda Packard (shown here with notary Leslie Greenberg) was nervous about flying in the wake of the 9-11 events. So she had her will updated before her recent Florida vacation.

Diekmeyer's E-mail address is peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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