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8 Easy Steps You Can Take to Get Your Estate in Order

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*Please note that School of Scheff is not legal advice and should not be taken as such. School of Scheff provides legal information which is specific to the Province of Alberta. Should you reside outside the Province of Alberta, please contact a lawyer in your jurisdiction with any legal queries as the laws across the Canadian provinces vary widely.* 

 8 Easy Steps You Can Take to Get Your Estate in Order 

As lawyers, we are sometimes asked a person can do to get their affairs in order and to help their loved ones when they pass on. It may come as a surprise, but there is actually a lot that can be done to assist your loved ones. Based on the few years I have under my belt administering estates; seeing what can go wrong; and hearing the questions exasperated loved ones had for their dearly departed; here are some basic things that you can do to make the lives of the people administering your estate easier.   

1. Prepare a Will 

Having a Will prepared is one of the single most easy ways to simplify your affairs. Even if you don’t have many assets or are okay with your assets passing according to the priorities set out under legislation.  

When someone dies, one of the most important things to ascertain is: who has authority to deal with the assets? There are many kinds of assets and institutions that will need this information such as: the banks or financial institutions, the Land Titles Office, Alberta Registries, and insurance companies. Essentially, any entity that has control over transferring ownership of an asset will need to know who has authority to deal with that deceased person’s asset. Sometimes it is a joint owner, but most times it is whoever ultimately ends up with the authority to administer the Estate either through the Will or by legislation. 

Some types of assets can be administered with a Will alone while other assets require a Grant of Probate. The process of getting a Grant of Probate is the process of 1) applying to the Court to authenticate a Will to ensure that it is in fact the deceased’s last Will and 2) applying to have the Court grant authority to the individual appointed in the Will (the personal representative) to administer the deceased person’s estate. 

If there is no Will, all of these entities need to know who has authority to deal with the assets will need to wait until you obtain a Grant of Administration (which is similar to a Grant of Probate in that someone is applying for authority to administer the Estate except that the authority doesn’t come from the Will – because there isn’t a Will – it comes from legislation and priorities under the legislation) in order to determine who has authority to deal with the asset.  

2. Talk to Your Loved Ones 

One of the most difficult things that we see in estate administration is the hurt that loved ones feel when they receive a copy of a loved one’s Will or find out from the Personal Representative that the Estate isn’t being distributed in the manner that they thought. This can happen inadvertently for many reasons or this can be an intentional choice that was made by that deceased person when they drafted their Will. Either way, there is no one that can answer the questions this loved one has except for the person who is now deceased and those unanswered questions and unprovided explanations can hurt deeply.  

3. Deal with Anything that is Out of the Ordinary 

If there is an asset that was never transferred into your name or an asset that you didn’t have a prior deceased owner’s name removed from – deal with this while you are still living. These are the worst kinds of things for a personal representative to have to deal with and they cause extra complications in an Estate. I have seen this with land, timeshares, shares, and vehicles and all of these would have been most easily dealt with while that person was still living. If it’s not dealt with while that person is still living, in order to transfer the asset there can be many additional hoops that need to be dealt with. This can range from trying to track down death certificates, Wills, and Grants of Probate for that prior deceased person and in rare occasions, if the prior estate wasn’t probated, it can involve the personal representative having to go to Court or probating that prior deceased person’s Estate in addition to your Estate. These steps may still have to be taken while you are still living, but this would allow you to deal with it first hand rather than put this on your personal representative while they are trying to administer your Estate. 

 4. Gather Your Important Documents  

Keep your important documents all in one place and tell your loved ones where to find them or make it easy to find them. When a person passes away, it can be very difficult to find all of their important documents such as their social insurance cards; their birth certificate; their account numbers for bank accounts and investments; deeds for timeshares; leases for cottages; etc. etc. In some cases, such as if you prepared a Will with a lawyer, the law firm may have retained some of this information on their file, but this isn’t a guarantee and shouldn’t be relied on as a substitute. 

The more organized that you can be, the easier it will be on your loved ones when they are trying to ascertain what assets you have and find all of the necessary identifying information that they need. 

5. Make a List of Assets 

If you have prepared a Will with our office, you’ll have had an opportunity to fill out an asset inventory. This is an important step when we work with clients to draft a Will as different kinds of assets require different kinds of clauses and considerations in a Will. One of the biggest considerations are assets that are located outside of Alberta and Canada as well as assets which can attract tax consequences such as RRSPs. If you currently do not have a Will, creating a list of your assets along with their approximate values will be a huge help to anyone administering your estate. These include: all bank and investment accounts; vehicles; properties; businesses; and valuable personal property. Valuable personal property may include things such as fine jewellery, art, collectibles, etc. Additionally, if you have a safety deposit box, identify where it is and where the key is located; and if you have a funeral plot, identify the location of this as well. 

6. Make a List of Passwords and Electronic Assets 

In this electronic age, having a list of passwords and accounts is crucial. This includes the location and passwords for any hot or cold cryptocurrency wallets. Arguably, one of the most important passwords is the password for your e-mail account. This is because, prior to the digital age and electronic statements, one of the easiest ways to ascertain what bank accounts and investments a person had, as well as what bills needed to be paid, was to receive the deceased person’s mail. Now, with everything being electronic and much of it being sent through e-mail, having access to the deceased person’s e-mail is absolutely critical.  

In your account lists, it would be helpful to list accounts such as your e-mail addresses, utility accounts, internet provider account, streaming services, social media accounts, storage accounts such as Google Drive, Microsoft, or DropBox.  

7. List Your Trusted Advisors/Professionals 

Make a list of who your professionals and advisors are. This includes your lawyer, your accountant, your banking professionals (if any), your investment advisors, essentially any professional or advisor that you deal with regularly who may have information which could assist your personal representative in administering your Estate.  

8. Start Downsizing

If you are able to start downsizing your home and condensing your belongings, this will save your personal representatives crucial time and headache, especially if they do not live in the same city as you. Cleaning out a deceased person’s home, trying to find places for all of their household goods, or arranging for a sale of those goods can be extremely tedious and often does not yield a high monetary return. The more you can downsize, the easier your personal representatives’ lives will be as they administer your Estate.  

About the Author

Charlene Scheffelmair is a partner with Davidson & Williams LLP in Lethbridge, Alberta. She practices primarily in the areas of corporate and commercial law; residential and commercial real estate; estate administration and planning; and foreclosures.

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