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Legal Wills In Canada: Understanding The Basics

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    Creating a legal will can be an uncomfortable and confusing process — you might feel overwhelmed by legal jargon or the decisions ahead of you. You’re not alone as Willful’s research shows that more than 57% of Canadians don’t have a will. You might think you’re too young, that making a will feels morbid or is simply a daunting task. 

    To get the process started, we’ve answered every question you may have about what constitutes a legal will in Canada and what you’ll need to consider when making yours. Ensuring your will is legally binding protects you, your family and your assets — it’s very important to make sure it fulfills those requirements!

    What Is A Will?

    Your "last will and testament” is a legal document that outlines how you wish to distribute your assets, such as property or money, after you pass away. It also outlines guardians/custodians that you would want to care for minor children and pets after you die. Your will is also where you name your executor, the person who will be in charge of settling your affairs on your behalf.

    When And Why Do I Need A Legal Will?

    When should I create a will

    Creating a will is an important responsibility of an adult and can be created once you reach the age of majority in your province or territory (visit our Glossary to find the age of majority in your province) barring certain exceptions.

    An Angus Reid study commissioned by Willful in 2019 found that over 57% of Canadians don’t have a will. Life is unpredictable but having a will can help us prepare for the unexpected and protect our loved ones from future chaos and complications.

    Assigning an executor helps provide access to the necessary accounts and property to settle your estate – if you pass away without a will, the courts have to appoint an administrator to wrap up your estate, and it may not be the person you would have chosen. Even if you do not own much in terms of assets, something as simple as access to clean out your fridge and personal belongings may be delayed if no legal executor has been selected in advance.

    What Drives People To Make A Legal Will?

    While all adults should have a will, here are some key factors that drive people to create their will:

    • You recently got married or remarried, or are contemplating marriage – in many Canadian provinces, marriage revokes a will unless it was made in contemplation of marriage
    • You are currently in a common-law marriage
    • You recently went through a common-law separation or divorce – in many provinces, divorce revokes gifts made to an ex, but in other provinces divorce doesn’t affect the provisions of your will
    • You have assets such as a home or multiple properties
    • You have a child(ren) and/or other dependents
    • You own valuable heirlooms such as art or jewelry
    • You have assets that as a result of your death may cause tension among surviving family
    • You own a business or investments
    • You have a cause that you’d like to donate to upon your passing

    If any of the above situations apply to you, it is a good idea to create a will as soon as possible so you can have peace of mind that your assets will be distributed among your loved ones in the way you intended. Start your will for free with Willful now.

    Do I Need A Lawyer Or Notary To Make A Legally Valid Will?

    Canadian law does not require you to create your will with a lawyer or notary. A lawyer can assist if you need legal advice, but many people have simple and straightforward estates that do not require legal advice. Platforms like Willful can guide you through the process to customize your legal documents to fit your needs and wishes.

    Everybody has the right to prepare their own will. You can even draft your will on a blank piece of paper if it’s signed and witnessed correctly (called a “holograph will”). However using software like Willful ensures you don’t leave out anything important or create contradictions through common mistakes and errors. For example, if something hasn’t been accounted for in your will, such as valuable family heirlooms, then those would fall under the “residue” of your estates and would be distributed according to the laws of intestacy (the laws that govern what happens if you pass away without a will). Especially in Ontario, where there is no statutory authority for judges to use their discretion to allow something that looks like a will to stand as a will, as opposed to other provinces like Manitoba which affords more discretion, it is important that the formal requirements are abided by.

    Here are some additional resources on making a legal wills in different provinces:

    Willful is also available in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan. We hope to expand to the territories in the future.

    What Happens If I Die Without A Legal Will?

    In the event you die either completely or partially without a will, the law says that you have died “intestate,” meaning that you haven’t left any instructions as to how you would like your property to be divided and distributed.

    Situations in which partial intestacy arises include: 

    • When the will does not contain a clause for the residue of the estate (everything that’s left after debts/taxes have been paid and specific gifts have been distributed)
    • A gift of residue to a specific beneficiary in the will fails to take effect because the beneficiary passed away before the person making the will
    • The will directs that the residue of the deceased person’s estate be invested during the lifetime of a specific individual but does not provide for what should happen to the residue following the death of the individual

    So what does that mean for your assets? In these circumstances, your property will be divided according to the laws of the province or territory you live in. Usually, this is a set formula that the courts will decide on and ultimately your wishes or outcome will likely not be the same as what the courts choose.

    Some of the negative implications if you choose not to make a will, or do not get the chance before you pass, may include but are not limited to:

    • Your estate may not be divided how you want it to be
    • While spouses are entitled to a “preferential share” of the estate, common law spouses are not entitled to anything
    • The court will decide who becomes the caregiver of any children
    • Financial and emotional difficulties for your spouse and family (especially for those who are in common-law relationships)
    • A missed opportunity for any charitable donations
    • The time it takes to close your affairs may take months and even years longer than if you had a written will

    We’ve all heard stories before about celebrities who die without a will, but this drama and pain is not exclusive to those with fame and massive fortunes.

    📜Wondering what actually goes in a will? Preview a sample will here or download a free copy of our step-by-step will checklist →

    How Is A Will Used After I Die?

    Your will is the roadmap to help guide your executor to settle your affairs on your behalf.

    It will be the job of the executor named in your will to distribute your assets as requested, which could include transferring ownership, paying off your debts, filing income tax returns, and distributing any remaining assets according to the terms of the will. Sometimes an executor is referred to as your personal representative. The executor is also responsible for following your wishes with regards to the disposal of your remains and your funeral planning. If you have specific wishes concerns your disposal, it is important that you appoint an executor who you can trust to fulfill your wishes.

    You want to have a living will -  which is a document that captures your wishes and preferences for medical and personal care in the event that you’re unable to advocate for yourself. Please note: last wills and testaments are different than living wills.

    Where Should I Store My Will?

    In Canada, only residents living in British Columbia can store their will online. Canadians living in other provinces must store a physical hardcopy. No matter where you live in Canada, you can’t have multiple copies of your will that you distribute to several family members. Only the original signed physical copy of your will is legally valid.

    An original copy of your will should be stored somewhere safe, in a place that is known and accessible to your executor. If you’re keeping your will at home, we recommend storing it in a fireproof box or bag. Keep it away from moisture, direct sunlight or anything else that can impact the paper and ink.

    You want your documents to be clearly legible for your executor and any institution that may need to see it.

    Another good option is a safety deposit box, but it’s important to make sure your family or executor will have access to it when you pass away, so double-check with the bank in advance.

    Registering your will on CanadaWillRegistry.org also helps to ensure your executor knows where it is. So if they forget or you forget to tell them, your executor can perform a search to find out exactly where it’s located. BC and Quebec also have provincial will registries.

    When And Why Do I Need To Update My Will?

    A will is not a one-and-done type of document. It’s living and breathing and should reflect life’s changes as they happen. Monumental moments like the birth of a child, purchase of a new home, marriage, or divorce are all life events that can directly affect and change your wishes.

    An outdated will may mean your assets could end up with someone that you’re no longer associated with such as a former spouse or common-law partner. At Willful, we firmly believe that keeping an updated will is paramount and doing an annual check-in can help prevent outdated legal wills.

    It’s also a good practice to review and update your POA and living will documents at the same time.

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    Ways To Update Your Legal Will

    You may want to update your will after the birth of a child, marriage, divorce, or purchase of a large asset. In order to do that, you can either use a codicil (essentially an add-on to your will), or you can execute a new will that revokes the previous version.

    You can also update your will through alterations – for example by crossing out or adding something to a paper copy of your will with a pen. If you make this type of alteration to your will, you have to sign next to the change you made in front of two witnesses who also sign next to your signature. (In the case of a will that was made as a privileged or holograph will, it just requires the signature of the testator, not the witnesses.)

    Willful does not require that you create a codicil to update your will. Willful updates your will by revoking your current will and creating another properly executed will, which is why you will need to get your new will witnessed again and destroy your old will.

    Take our quiz to find out which Willful plan is right for you →

    What Should I Do After I Create My Will?

    It’s not over yet! Once you’re happy with your will and it’s been signed and stored in a safe place here’s what to consider next.

    Update it after life changes: It’s essential to keep your will up-to-date as life changes. Consider setting a calendar reminder every 6 or 12 months, so your will doesn’t collect dust and reflects your most current wishes.

    Let your executor know you’ve picked them: It’s a role that requires a lot of responsibility; therefore you should inform the person they’ve been chosen in order to avoid any surprises down the road.

    Tell your executor and or family where it’s located: A will is pretty useless if nobody can find it! Make sure to let a trusted family member or your executor know where they can access it should something happen to you.

    Register your will: Willful provides free registration on the Canada Will Registry so if your family or executor forgets where you stored your will, they can find its location through the will registry. (Read more about will registry)

    Complete an affidavit of execution: If your will is required to go through the probate process (the process of a court formally accepting your will – about 90% of legal wills are required to go through probate), all Canadian provinces except BC require that one of your witnesses provides a notarized affidavit of execution as proof that they were witness to the creation of your will. You can choose to get this done now, or it can be provided at the time of your passing.

    Record other key info your family would need to know: Your will is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wrapping up your life during the estate planning process. Your executor would benefit from a list of key contacts (like a financial advisor), key accounts (bank accounts, investments, etc.), other accounts (cable, Netflix, etc.), and any other instructions that aren’t contained in the will.

    FAQs On Legal Wills in Canada

    What Makes A Will Legal In Canada? 

    The regulations regarding wills and estate planning documents vary across different provinces and territories.  You can visit our Learn Centre for more resources for wills in Canada. 

    The following requirements apply to legal wills in Canada:

    1. The will has to exist in a physical form — on paper, rather than being stored digitally (with the exception of British Columbia). 
    2. You, in addition to two witnesses, must sign the will in each other’s presence. 
    3. You need to be over the age of majority and of sound mind. Underaged individuals can write a will if they are married, have children or are a member of the armed forces. 
    4. Beneficiaries of the will, or the testator’s spouse cannot be witnesses. 
    5. Your signature must appear in ink at the end of the will. 

    There is another type of legal will called a holographic will. A holographic will is valid as long as it’s written by hand and signed by you (the testator). It does not require witnesses. These aren’t recommended as they’re susceptible to human error.

    Does Where I Live (Or Move) Affect My Will?

    In Canada, a will written in any province will be valid in other provinces (with the exception of British Columbia), so long as its provisions do not contradict the laws of the province it is being applied in. Check out the government of Canada’s resources around estate planning, organized by province or territory.

    If you’ve created a digital will in British Columbia, when you move to another province, you will need to print, sign and witness a physical copy of your will to make it legally valid. There are differences in the laws, but courts will do whatever they can to carry out the clear intent of a will drafted in another jurisdiction.

    At Willful, we ensure that each template legal document we create uses the correct terminology and verbiage outlined by the legislation in each province. We partner with local estate lawyers in each province who keep us updated on any changes in the law that could impact our customers and their documents.

    What Is A Mirrored Will?

    Mirrored wills are used to allow two people, usually married couples, to create almost identical wills which leaves everything to each other. This would cover both parties’ wishes. If the two married people die at the same time, or within thirty days of each other, then everything would go to the couples’ children or a named beneficiary.

    Can I Digitally Sign And Store My Will?

    British Columbia is the only province to permit digitally-signed wills. If you live in any other Canadian province, grab a pen because digitally-signed wills are not currently recognized. To maximize the likelihood that your requests are met, you will need a will that is physically printed and signed by you and your witnesses in writing. You may sometimes hear the term “wet signature” which just means a signature that needs time to dry or is signed in ink.

    Birds-Eye shot of two women signing and witnessing a will

    Who Can Act As A Witness When I Sign My Will?

    Once you have drafted your will, and it accurately reflects your wishes, you must sign it in the presence of at least two witnesses. Although you, the testator, need to be present when the witnesses sign the legal will, each witness does not need to be there while the other witness signs. Sequence matters, and the signature or the acknowledgement of the signature by the testator in the presence of two or more attesting witnesses present at the same time must precede the signature of either witness.

    Your witnesses could be any two adults; friends, neighbours or co-workers. The witness cannot be:

    • A beneficiary of the will
    • The spouse of a beneficiary at the time of signing
    • A minor

    After the printed legal document is signed and witnessed, it becomes your legal last will and testament.

    Note that if your will is required to go through the probate process, in all provinces except BC one of your witnesses will need to provide a sworn affidavit of execution attesting to the fact that they were witness to the creation of your will. You can complete this at the time you execute your will, or a witness can provide it at the time of your passing.

    It’s Always A Good Time To Create Your Legal Will

    When it comes to estate planning, the best thing you can do for yourself and your beneficiaries is to be properly prepared. Knowing that your will is out of the way and your final wishes have been accounted for will save you time and stress down the road.

    We hope this article helped you learn more about creating a will in Canada. Please remember that Willful is not a law firm and cannot provide legal advice. All information in our Learn Centre is general and public information can also be researched through your provincial Attorney General website.

    ✍️ Get started writing your will with Willful →

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