A shorter version of this article appeared in the September issue of the GSI Benefits newsletter that goes out to ELCIC clergy and church workers.

While doing some work on planned giving for a number of ELCIC-related organizations this past summer, I became aware of rather sobering statistics pertaining to the high number of Canadians who do not have an up-to-date, legal will. (See, for example, this survey.) I also know there are many ELCIC plan members who, for various reasons, have not gotten around to making one. If you stop reading here, please, make sure that you aren’t one of those members!

The importance of having a will became even clearer to me this past August. I was working on the first draft of this article, when a close family member suddenly died. Without a will. This relative had never married or produced children and probably imagined that settling his estate would be a simple matter. Instead, it has been a huge added stress on our family at a time when we were already in shock and grieving his death. Having an executor be legally appointed has been time-consuming and expensive; until that is done, our family can’t begin to look at selling the house or car. The intestate laws of his province also mean the estate will be divided differently than he had requested in the filled-out-internet-will he had drafted and signed but failed to have witnessed. (In most Canadian jurisdictions, a will written entirely in your own handwriting is legal; a typed one must be witnessed.)

We were fortunate that he did not have minor children or beloved pets. Again, without a will, determining who will care for dependents can be very difficult – and the end result may not correspond to what you (or they!) would have wished. Likewise, the executor appointed by the court may not be a person you trusted and would want to be in charge of settling your affairs; in your will, you can appoint the executor who you know will honour your wishes.

My relative died suddenly, but many of us will not. Having a legal document assigning Power of Attorney in case we become incapacitated can spare us much hardship. Also, an Advanced Medical Directive will ensure that your relatives and physicians will not be left guessing whether you wish to be kept alive on life support, perhaps suffering. Your lawyer can help you prepare these documents when you are updating your will.

Although it may not be pleasant to contemplate the circumstances under which having a will shall become necessary, writing a will can be a positive experience. The will is your final word: what it contains can say a lot about your values and beliefs. Do you have special friends or Godchildren who were especially important in your life? Unless your will says otherwise, the laws of intestacy will divide your estate among blood relatives and exclude these unrelated loved ones. Likewise, organizations that you have supported and may wish to recognize in your estate (e.g., your church, other faith-based organizations, other charities) will receive nothing unless your legal will specifies that they should. In many cases, a gift to charity can even be financially beneficial to the rest of the estate.

Preparing a legal will shall cost you some time and money. But the cost of not having one is greater. For your own sake as well as that of your family, friends, and pets, please write or update your will TODAY.