By Erin Bury, CEO, Willful
Before my husband started an estate planning company, preparing for death was something that never crossed my mind. Maybe it was because I was in my twenties, and it seemed like such a far-off thing to worry about. Maybe it’s because it’s just something everyone avoids thinking about. Or maybe it’s because it wasn’t part of everyday conversation, and didn’t seem like something I needed to prioritize. Either way, I was in my late 20s, and despite being a homeowner who had assets, I had never really discussed any of that stuff with my family – and I certainly didn’t have a will.
That all changed when my husband’s uncle passed away, and his family saw how difficult it was to wrap up someone’s life, even when they do have a will. His uncle had outlined who got his stuff, but he hadn’t discussed the larger questions around end-of-life, so his family had to ask them. The big questions, like whether he wanted to be buried or cremated, or what type of celebration he would have wanted, all the way down to the small things, like which tie he would want to be buried in. It inspired my husband to start a company devoted to helping Canadians plan for death online. Willful was formed in late 2017, and I joined as CEO in the spring of 2019. I went from actively avoiding thinking about death, to working in a business where I not only confront the idea of it every day, I’m also working to get Canadians to get more prepared.
That’s why I spent a recent Sunday afternoon creating a When I Die folder in Google Drive, inspired by this Time article. Yes, I spent my free time making a cloud folder designed to be accessed when I pass away. Why, you ask, would I spend time doing this? It’s because after a year in this business, I realized that with our increasingly large digital footprint, and our increasingly long list of accounts, investments, and subscriptions, a will is really just the tip of the iceberg to closing up someone’s life in 2020.
For anyone who thinks of “estate planning,” they likely think of a will – and that’s definitely a great place to start. You should make a will. Your will outlines who gets your stuff and who will take care of minor children and pets if you pass away, and it also allows you to do things like leave specific gifts to people and leave gifts to charity. If you don’t have one, your assets will be distributed according to a default provincial formula, and it likely wouldn’t match what you would have wanted. Your will really allows you to speak after you’re gone, and it’s a blueprint your family can follow.
But it really is just the first of many things your executor (the person who’s putting your plan into action) would need in order to close up your life. Increasingly I read about situations where people can’t shut down or get access to their loved one’s accounts after they pass away; a BC widow couldn’t get access to PayPal funds held by her husband, and platforms like Twitter saw an outcry from family members after threatening to shut down millions of accounts held by deceased users. Combine that with the fact that most households have one person who manages the finances and accounts (in my household, that’s me) and you have a recipe for disaster when an executor tries to access accounts or find everything under your name.
That’s why on that recent cold Sunday, I set out to ensure that I made life easier for my executor. Here’s what I included in that folder – and what you should include in yours:
Financial information: List out who you have investments with, who your life insurance policy is with, and which bank accounts and credit cards need to be closed, along with account numbers. This might also include cryptocurrency or other digital assets like music. Remember to assign a beneficiary on any life insurance policies or registered savings accounts (they are paid outside of your estate, so it saves time and money).
Social media preferences: Do you want your Facebook and Twitter account to stay active, or be shut down? What about your blog or personal website if you have one? I’ve outlined preferences for each, along with last messages I would want posted. Remember that not all social media channels have policies for legacy settings or contacts– (Facebook is one of the only ones) and navigating trying to shut down these accounts can be time-consuming and take months.
Accounts and subscriptions: In 2020 we have such a large digital footprint, from Netflix subscriptions to Spotify accounts, and listing out those accounts can help guide your executor to what needs closing or cancelling. Think about offline subscriptions too – gym memberships, club memberships, or other ongoing payments. Otherwise, they’ll have to wait until charges come in on your credit card to piece together what you have.
Passwords: If you don’t have passwords to accounts or devices, it can be impossible to gain access. Best practice is to use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass, and store the master password with the physical copy of your will. If you don’t do that, at least provide your device passwords and email password to your executor – they can typically reset everything that way and gain access.
Household info: This should include info on your mortgage provider, home insurance, household accounts that need to be shut down/changed (cable, internet, insurance, Property Tax, etc.) and the details for any important contacts (real estate agents, contractors, or anyone else who would assist with selling your home). If you own property jointly, a reminder that the home automatically transfers to the joint holder.
Funeral/burial wishes: In my will, I’ve outlined the fact that I want to be cremated, and that I want to have a celebration, not a stuffy funeral – but I’ve included more details on these items in my folder. Now everyone will know that I want wine and pizza served! Remember, funeral and burial wishes aren’t legally binding – if you do put them in your will, your family is likely to follow them, but you can also include them in another place.
Business arrangements: I have several businesses, and I know there’s a lot of intel about my businesses that only I know. If my executor were to carry on or wrap up my business, they need to know crucial info, like who my accountants are, the CRA numbers, and how to access other key info.
There are lots of other things you can include in that file – info about your kids and/or pets and how you would want them to be cared for (I have neither) letters to loved ones, maybe family recipes you want to be passed down. While a will has to be printed and signed correctly to be legally-valid, I also store a copy of my will registry on the CanadaWillRegistry.org.
Phew. Seems like a lot of work, but it’s really something I chip away at over time. And if you set aside time to do this, you’ll be way ahead of most people when it comes to having a robust estate plan. There are a few key things to remember though;
- Ensure you store your will with other key documents in a place that’s accessible to your executor and any backup executors (not in a safety deposit box!) and tell them where it is.
- Keep your will and your folder up to date – it’s so easy to let these things slide, so take stock once a year to ensure everything is current (maybe around tax time – knock two uncomfortable things off your list at the same time). I plan to review, update, and add to my plan every year.
- Talk to your loved ones about your wishes! Writing them down is one thing, communicating them to your family so they know what you really want is another. This also helps to open up the conversation about what your loved ones would want – which you’ll be grateful for when the time comes for you to be an executor.
Ultimately, an estate plan isn’t for you – it’s for your loved ones. So taking a few hours to create these documents now will save them countless hours in future. And who knows, it might ensure that $25 of Bitcoin you purchased doesn’t get lost in cyberspace when you’re gone.
Erin Bury is the co-founder and CEO of Willful, a platform that makes it easy, affordable, and convenient to create a legally-binding will online. Her mission is to help Canadian women talk about the uncomfortable topics in life – death and how hard it is to be an entrepreneur.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Equitable Bank. Any information provided is for information purposes only and Equitable Bank makes no representations as to the validity, accuracy, completeness or suitability of any content. You should seek the advice of a qualified professional or undertake your own research before making financial decisions.