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How To Talk About Wills: Guide To Discussing End-Of-Life Wishes With Family

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    If the last few years has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for the unexpected. You may have put off conversations about end-of-life planning because it’s a sensitive topic, and not everyone is open to discussing things like their will, burial wishes, or funeral planning. Now more than ever though, it’s so important to have these conversations with family. Our research shows that 59% of Canadians are thinking more about emergency preparedness due to COVID-19, but 57% of Canadian adults don’t have a will in place, while countless others haven’t had conversations with their family about their end-of-life wishes.

    Canadians aren’t talking about end-of-life

    Willful research conducted by Angus Reid shows that two-thirds (66%) of Canadians don’t know the end of life wishes of their spouse, and 57% don’t know the end of life wishes for any of their loved ones. This can lead to problems after family members pass, including arguing over assets and disagreements about burial and funeral wishes. In fact 42% of Canadians have witnessed problems, disputes, or disagreements in their family after the passing of a loved one, and 1 in 10 Canadians have been directly involved in a dispute after a loved one passed.

    Why is it important to talk about wills and end-of-life wishes? 

    The best way to avoid unanswered questions and disputes is to ensure you make your end-of-life wishes known to your family, and you discuss their wishes so you’re informed when the time comes. But how do you bring it up, and what questions should you be asking? And more importantly, how can you broach the subject in a way that fosters positive discussion instead of arguments? Willful has you covered with our guide to discussing end of life planning with your family.

    First things first: Why should you have these discussions? Here are a few reasons it’s important: 

    • Be confident that you would honour your loved one’s legacy when they pass away
    • Know what funeral and cemetery wishes they prefer
    • Clarify whether key documents or policies have been put in place - for example a will or life insurance - and where they are located
    • Communicate your own wishes to loved ones as well, so you know they would honour them when you pass
    • Save time and money on estate administration 

    Ultimately having these discussions will give you and your family the peace of mind that you would honour each other’s legacy, and be empowered with the key information and decisions they need after someone passes away.

    Who should I discuss my end-of-life plans with?

    Discussing end-of-life wishes can be a sensitive topic, so it’s something you’ll likely discuss privately with your spouse, parents, or other immediate family members. Here’s an overview of who you may want to discuss these items with: 

    • Your executor (the person who will manage the affairs of your estate when you pass) and any backup executors
    • Anyone who has named you the executor in their will, since you will need to know these details when they pass
    • Your parents - even if you’re not the executor of their will, you will likely be in charge of helping to wrap up their estate 
    • Your siblings - especially if they don’t have adult children, it’s important to ask your siblings about these wishes, especially if you are the executor in their will, or a potential guardian for their children
    • Your children - if you have adult children, you should share your wishes with them, and understand theirs in the unlikely case they predecease you

    You may also choose to discuss these topics with aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, or others. The golden rule is that if they would need to make decisions or help with estate administration after you pass away, you should make your wishes clear to them.

    How can I bring up the topic of estate planning? 

    We hear from folks all the time that they are nervous to bring these topics up because their family is uncomfortable discussing death, or they don’t want to seem opportunistic by asking about their will. 

    Our recommendation is to stick to the topics of legacy and peace of mind. Try something like this:

    Hey mom and dad. With the unexpected impact of COVID-19, I’m hoping we can set aside an hour to discuss your legacy and end-of-life wishes. Many families don’t have these discussions, and they’re so important to ensure that I can honour your wishes after you pass. These topics can be uncomfortable, but I feel it is important to know what your wishes are so we can make the right decisions when the time comes. Having this discussion now will relieve stress and burden on the family at a time when we should be celebrating your life. 

    Make it clear that this isn’t about your inheritance - rather, this is about the larger topics that will help you make decisions when they pass, and that will relieve the stress and uncertainty from you and any others who are handling the estate administration process. 

    Now that every family is comfortable with virtual video chats, it’s easy to schedule an hour in the calendar. You can call the event “Legacy Wishes,” or something similar. You can also have this conversation in person if you are in a bubble with your family.

    What questions should I ask my family about their wishes? 

    There are so many topics to cover when it comes to estate planning - we’ve broken these into sections to help guide the conversation (thanks to our partners at Arbor Memorial and After for developing some of these questions). 


    Note that not everyone will be comfortable discussing how they will allocate their estate - this may be something they record in their will privately, but this can help you to spark the conversation for them to think about it.

    1. Do you have a will, and if so, does your executor know where it’s stored? If not, do you plan to get one, and what are the blockers to doing so?
    2. Do you have life insurance, and if so, does the beneficiary or executor know where it’s stored?
    3. Of all your valuables, what do you want to make sure goes to specific people?
    4. What is the plan for your biggest assets, including any real estate or investments?
    5. Who will inherit all the stuff you didn’t specifically assign, and how are you dividing it up fairly?
    6. Who will take in your dependents (kids, pets, etc.) and how will they be compensated? (for example, will you leave a pet trust for a pet’s care)
    7. Who will be the person making sure your estate is distributed as intended (your executor)?

    Funeral and Cemetery:

    Did you know there are up to 87 Decisions to be made when someone dies? These are just a few of the questions from our partners at Arbor Memorial. Knowing the answers will help you and your loved ones to make informed decisions about funeral and cemetery wishes.

    1. Do you want to be buried or cremated?
    2. Where do you want your final resting spot to be?  Mausoleum, Niche, Traditional burial or Cremation Garden
    3. What do you want engraved on your monument or marker at your final resting spot?
    4. Do you want a traditional or religious ceremony, or a unique send-off?
    5. Are there any mementos, photos or memories shared you want at your funeral?
    6. Do you want to be an organ donor, or donate your body to science?


    This section is all about ensuring that your legacy lives on, both online and offline.

    1. How do you hope your family history and life story will be preserved? (Are there any recipes, stories, songs, or photographs that you want to pass on)
    2. What are your preferences for your digital footprint? Do you want to keep your social media accounts active, or do you want us to delete them?
    3. Who will have access to your key digital accounts?
    4. How do you want to be remembered when you are gone?
    5. Who would you like to receive a letter or video from you once you’re gone?
    6. What charities and causes do you want supported in your honour?


    This section is all about how your family should care for you if you are to become ill or injured. These details are so helpful to medical professionals and family members.

    1. What would be the ideal environment in which you’d like to be cared for? 
    2. Would you want to continue treatment even if you became terminally ill or permanently unconscious? 
    3. If you are no longer breathing or your heart stops, would you want to be resuscitated?
    4. Who will be the person with the authority to make healthcare decisions on your behalf, if you’re unable to?
    5. Who would you choose to be your guardian and manage your finances in the event you were unable to due to illness or injury?
    6. Have you formalized these decisions in power of attorney documents? If so, do your attorneys know where to find them? If no, do you have a plan in place to get POAs? What are the blockers to getting this done?

    Where should my family and I record this information?

    If you’ve reviewed the questions in the previous section with your family, congrats: you are way more informed as a family than most Canadians. As you review the questions with your family, you will likely want to take notes in a notebook, or online. You can record  these wishes in whatever format helps you to easily access them when needed.

    It’s important to note that many of the choices in the Treasures section should be recorded in a will (if they aren’t, they are not legally-binding when you pass). And the questions in the Care section should be recorded in power of attorney documents (for financial and medical). 

    Willful is working on providing a place to record these wishes in your account - until then, you can store in the cloud or on paper.

    What if my family doesn’t want to discuss these topics? 

    From speaking with thousands of customers over the years about end-of-life planning, one constant theme has emerged: end-of-life planning isn’t for you; it’s for your family. While people find it uncomfortable to think about, they always agree that they want to reduce the burden on their family, and they don’t want to leave a mess for their loved ones. Here are a few ways you can help reluctant family members get on board: 

    • Share an anecdote about a friend or family member who didn’t plan in advance, and the headache it caused for family (if you don’t have one in your family, you can share the story of Prince, who passed away without a will years ago and his estate is still moving through the court system)
    • Highlight that having plans in place mean reduced time, energy, and costs at a time when you will be grieving - sharing this information will help ease the future burden and uncertainty 
    • If it’s a spouse or parent, highlight that you will be directly responsible for wrapping up their estate, so you have a vested interest in knowing their wishes
    • Reiterate that even one conversation about these plans can drastically reduce the amount of unanswered questions in the future
    • Highlight the opportunity to have control over their legacy, vs. someone else defining that for them
    • Share your own wishes with them to spark the conversation 

    Ultimately you can’t force your family to have these conversations, but you can share with them why it’s important to you - and you can share your own wishes to ensure they’re informed on your wishes.

    More Resources

    10 Tips To Discussing End Of Life Wishes

    This guide is full of tips that can help you successfully have a discussion about end of life wishes and estate planning with your loved ones.

    Download Now →

    Guide To Your End Of Life Wishes

    This helpful guide helps you navigate your end of life conversations with a list of questions to ask and a fill-in-the-blank form to record answers. Basically, it's the perfect document to store with your will!

    Download Now →

    Ask An Expert Series:

    We sat down with various experts to chat about their take on how to have these difficult conversations around death and estate planning. Click below to see what they had to say:

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