We can often have very unique visions for our legacy. For some, it may be to support the next generation to gain skills or to carry on a family business; others may have more philanthropic goals, such as supporting a cause they believe in. However, in many cases, a shared objective is to maintain family harmony after you are gone.
Even the most harmonious of families can undergo conflict and bitter disputes when dealing with the distribution of assets within an estate. As you plan ahead for your own estate, are there ways to help protect family harmony? Here are some thoughts:
1. Keep documents updated
Consider the importance of reviewing your estate plan periodically to ensure it reflects your current thinking and to avoid future conflict. If you have a will in place, how old is it? Perhaps this may be a good time for a thorough review of your estate planning documents, especially if circumstances have changed. Equally important: reviewing your named beneficiaries. Many investors fail to revisit these designations after opening accounts, despite major life changes.
2. Rely on professional support
Improper documentation or vague instruction can lead to misunderstanding, conflict and even court battles. While you are able to create estate planning documents on your own, such as by using an online will service, even if the document is valid, do you fully understand the family and succession laws of your province or income tax and investment rules? These can change over time and should be evaluated against your estate plan. With the rise in blended families, balancing competing interests from children, stepchildren and a new spouse is challenging. The support of estate planning professionals can help ensure assets are distributed as intended.
Sharing your intentions with beneficiaries can help manage expectations and prevent future conflict. While the topic of death is not easily approached, consider communicating with loved ones while you are alive about your estate. In-depth details do not have to be provided, but high-level conversations can be beneficial to avoid future surprises. These conversations can also help you understand the wishes of loved ones for when you are gone, such as for items of sentimental value, which can commonly become the centre of conflict.
4. Be aware of the potential consequences of joint ownership with children
Joint ownership* is often used to simplify the transfer of assets on death. Sometimes it is used to minimize probate fees in provinces where applicable. Yet, it has the potential to lead to complications — often revolving around estate equalization. It is a common cause for stressful and expensive lawsuits that will easily surpass the cost of probate — perhaps the exact situation you were trying to avoid in the first place! There may also be unintended consequences, such as tax implications or exposing assets to potential creditors.
5. Consider the support of a corporate executor
It may be money well spent to consider a corporate executor. This can help to preserve impartiality if you have children you were considering to be executor(s) of your estate. More importantly, it can help to take the burden off of loved ones during what is often a very emotionally difficult time.
Leaving a legacy that minimizes the potential for conflict can be one of the most thoughtful things you can do for your loved ones and can help to ensure that the rewards of your lifetime of hard work are directed as intended. We recommend seeking the support of estate planning specialists as it relates to your situation.
*Joint ownership occurs when an asset is owned by more than one person. There are two forms: “Joint tenancy with the right to survivorship” refers to an arrangement in which the ownership of the asset passes directly to the surviving owner(s) upon the death of one of the owners. This does not apply in Quebec, where the laws differ and an automatic right of survivorship does not exist. Under a “tenants in common” arrangement, owners each hold separate ownership interests in the asset that can generally be sold, transferred or bequeathed without the consent of the other owners.