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What happens when a family member dies and doesn't leave a will? It's not pleasant, as one woman recounts. It's a frustrating exercise that underscores why everyone should have a legal will.

In April of 2017, my family got a call we never expected.

My father’s youngest brother had died suddenly in his home. My uncle Peter was a single man without children, so it fell upon my family to take care of his estate. While this is never a pleasant task for any family, our experience was made several times more difficult and stressful due to the fact that we were unable to find his legal will.

He was a former member of the Canadian Navy, based in Halifax. Upon receiving the news my parents flew out to Nova Scotia from our family home in Ontario to take care of everything.

At least, that was the plan. What happened was a frantic scavenger hunt that led us to dead-ends and an agonizing process with the government. Did I mention that we had to deal with this gong show while trying to process our grief of losing a loved one?

Since he had served in the navy, we all assumed Peter had a will. Despite hours of searching, there wasn’t one to be found. Instead of spending the time in Halifax to clear out his apartment and to distribute/sell his belongings, my parents were trying to find Peter’s will. After a week of searching, they gave up, put Peter’s stuff in storage, and flew home. They were still determined to look for a will from afar.

Over the next two months, we did everything we could to find his will, if one even existed at all. We contacted the Canadian military in hopes they might still have one on file. After all, he had only been out of the military for a few years before his death. Even if it wasn’t a recent will, it would have given us some understanding of his last wishes.

No luck. We reached out to every bank and lawyer office we could find in the Halifax area. Again, we came up empty-handed. So we rifled through boxes and boxes of my uncle’s papers that my parents had brought home. Perhaps somewhere in that pile, we’d find a will or clue about whether he had created one and with whom.

But it was all a lost cause. Grief-stricken and frustrated, we had to figure out our next steps of dealing with what the law calls dying “intestate”—meaning that a loved one hasn’t left any instructions as to how they’d like their property to be divided and distributed. It also meant his last wishes for burial were a guessing game.

Unfortunately, this is more common than you would think. Based on a poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in 2018, 51% of Canadians don’t have a will. One of the main reasons for this, according to the poll, is that people think they are too young to need one. The study showed that Canadians over the age of 55 are four times as likely to have a will as those aged 18-34, and twice as likely to have a will as those aged 35-54.

My uncle wasn’t very old. As I said, his death came as a shock. Peter passed when he was 49 years old, an age that many of us would consider far too young to die, and yet, clearly, it does happen.

What happens when there is no will?

Of course, there are systems in place to deal with this type of situation. In the end, we had to turn his estate over to the province of Nova Scotia to finalize. His belongings (mostly camping and fishing gear) were auctioned off. After paying for his funeral and services provided by the province, the money left over from his estate was then divided evenly between my uncle’s three siblings.

While it may seem like it all worked out in the end, the process was slow and painful for my family. To start with, searching for a will and trying to figure out what to do while we were grieving added greatly to our stress.

According to that Angus Reid Institute poll from 2018, the second most common reason why people said they didn’t have a will is because they didn’t believe that they had enough assets to make it worthwhile. However, a will is so much more than that—a will also states your power of attorney, executor, and final wishes.

The question of what to do with my uncle’s remains was a huge concern for us. As a former member of the Canadian navy, he had the right to be buried at sea. As a younger man, this is what he said he wanted but he had been retired for several years. Was this still his wish? We weren’t sure. Did he really want to go to sea for all eternity? Would he want his remains to be brought back to his hometown in Ontario? Or perhaps stay in Halifax? We had no way of knowing without a will. The uncertainty around this important decision weighed heavily on our family.

Having everything taken care of by the province of Nova Scotia instead of his family made everything feel incredibly impersonal. We were his flesh and blood. Decisions should have been ours to make for him. The entire process to settle his affairs took two years and added to our grief. Regular emails and notifications from the public trustee taking care of his estate, spread over 24 months, served as a constant reminder that, despite our efforts, we weren’t actually sure that his wishes were being followed.

The experience was not a good one, but it did open our eyes to how important it is to have a will and notify loved ones of its location. The experience with my uncle inspired me to talk with my parents about their wishes for their remains when they pass. My brother and I, both in our late 20s at the time, had a similar conversation as well. After all, you never know.

Why you need to create a will now

While these discussions are never fun, my family’s experience shows that we absolutely needed to have them. Having a will doesn’t just guarantee that your final wishes will be followed, it also provides a huge sense of comfort for the family and loved ones you leave behind. Now that you can make a legal will online affordably from home, there’s really no excuse not to have one.

Stories like mine are common enough, and the recent events of COVID-19 have further illustrated the fact that the unexpected can happen at any time.

I reached out to Erin Bury, CEO of Willful to ask about the company’s experience over the past year and her thoughts on the pandemic.

“COVID-19 caused many Canadians to think more about emergency preparedness—in the early days of the pandemic, we saw a surge in traffic and sales from people who wanted to check ‘get a will’ off their list,” Bury says. “Even after COVID-19 is over, Canadians will continue to prioritize emergency planning—whether that’s setting up an emergency fund, getting a will, or appointing a power of attorney—knowing that it’s always better to have these things in place before they’re needed.”

In July of 2020, Willful did a survey with Angus Reid regarding emergency planning during the pandemic. The survey showed that, as a result of the pandemic, 59% of Canadians are now thinking more about emergency preparedness. Another shift that emerged from the COVID-19 crisis is that now 48% of Canadians are now more likely to complete important documents, such as wills, online.

Hopefully, Bury is right and Canadians continue to prioritize emergency planning, including creating a will, because I wouldn’t wish what my family had to go through with my uncle’s death on anyone.

Please protect yourself and your family. Create a will. No excuses!

 

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