Creating your will: a guide for couples

From deciding whether your prickly sister-in-law should be the executor, to how much money you should leave to your spendthrift nephew, estate planning is fraught with emotional hiccups—especially when you’re strategizing for two.

As many couples know, big feelings often get in the way when it comes to tackling the topics of money and your eventual death. Here’s how to get past those emotions and come up with a joint plan for your wills that protects your loved ones and your assets.

First, let’s talk about why you need a will

Before you get started, it’s good to review some basic reasons for getting a will. Number one is to establish orderly succession. “You want the assets to go to the people you want it to go to, and minimize family disputes,” says Cynthia Kett, a Chartered Professional Accountant and Certified Financial Planner at Stewart & Kett.

Second is tax minimization. With proper estate planning, Kett explains you can ensure your assets aren’t eaten up by the CRA before it’s dispersed to loved ones.

And, finally, the Toronto-based pro says a will secures proper estate liquidity; that’s a plan for how your cash is doled out to cover after-death taxes, debt payments and the financial needs of your beneficiaries. If there isn’t enough liquidity, some other assets, such as the family home you want to pass along to children, may have to be sold to cover those cash obligations. 

Let’s also talk about why wills make people uncomfortable

Accepting your death isn’t easy and Janet Gray, a Certified Financial Planner for Money Coaches Canada, says that’s why couples get agitated and delay will and estate planning. 

Another reason for hesitancy: “I think people see it as an all-or-nothing decision—either I don’t have a will or I have one.… Most people don’t realize they have the flexibility to make adjustments” at any time after a will has been created, she explains. 

The better strategy is to embrace that your life is finite, draw up a will for now and then update it whenever you come to more confident decisions together. An online service like Willful makes this step quick, easy and affordable. You can each crate a legal will for as little as $99, from the comfort of your living room sofa. And when you need to make updates, that’s simple too: Willful is the only national will provider that offers unlimited updates to documents.

And remember that the alternative means leaving your loved ones in a financial and legal mess because without a will, any guardianship and inheritance issues are left to the courts to decide—without any of your loving guidance.

How to get the conversation started

“Discussing your will should ideally happen before a couple moves in together,” adds Gray.

If your partner shuts down the estate-planning process, she suggests using real-life examples to bring potential issues to light. For instance, talk about a friend who was left with nothing because her common-law partner didn’t have a will and in her province, common-law partners are not considered spouses. (The legal definition of a spouse and common-law relationship changes from province to province.) This story serves as a wake-up call, especially if it impacts your partner’s future security too.

This isn’t a one-and-done conversation, she adds; estate-planning should be ongoing because circumstances, such as a divorce or a financial windfall, will mean making important changes to your will that match up with your new situation and assets.

Consider asking a third party for help

From Kett’s experience, bringing a financial pro into the estate planning process can also help tone down heated conversations and neutralize emotions. “We give each person the opportunity to fully express their concerns, fears, hopes and aspirations,” she says of the planner’s role. “Once we’ve heard both sides, we can often find a middle ground or offer suggestions on how some of those concerns can be abated.” 

Once you’re armed with your planner’s help with formulating a plan, you’ll need to put that plan into action by creating your wills. You can do that by engaging the services of a lawyer (and that might be the right choice if your situation is complex), or with an online service like Willful.

If you still disagree about your estate plan, what if you knew that a will can save your beneficiaries money? Not writing a will may help you save some money today but it could cost your family thousands in the future. For example, a probate fee is a payment made to the courts to approve your will is legally valid. In Ontario, this can cost up to $14,500 per $1 million in assets. A financial advisor who has a full picture of your net worth and asset allocation can step in and show you how to trim down those fees and taxes wherever possible.

The bottom line

Wills and estate planning provide for your loved ones after your death. It’s an uncomfortable process but a necessary one—so get over the emotional hurdles because the dollars and sense will ultimately give you both peace of mind.


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