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Will and Estate Planning FAQs

1. Do I need a lawyer to create a will? No, you don't. But it's a very good idea to have a lawyer help you with your will. If you do your will yourself, there is a good chance your will may be (a) inconsistent, (b) vague or ambiguous, (c) lacking in legal requirements, (d) legally valid, but poorly planned, or (e) susceptible to legal challenges after you have died. Don't do it yourself. Having a properly prepared will is too important!

2. Do I need to "avoid probate"? Probate is the process of a court overseeing the administration of your estate. In some jurisdictions (Ontario comes to mind), probate fees are a percentage of the part of your estate that goes through probate. In other words, in certain jurisdictions, your probate fees will increase proportionately to the value of your estate. In Alberta, probate fees are reasonable and do not increase as the value of your estate increases. As such, if you are writing a will in Alberta, there is less reason to avoid probate. In many cases, planning around jointly held property and insurance proceeds is done so that those items will not go through the probate process. Often, this is more an issue of efficiency than of cost. Jointly held property will, for example, more quickly pass to a surviving spouse as compared to property that is run through the probate process. Ditto for insurance proceeds.

3. Is there a way to plan my estate such that I will leave something to my family even if I am significantly in debt? Using life insurance is often a good way to accomplish this goal. If done properly, insurance money can flow to your beneficiaries even if you die in debt. Using insurance in this way often makes sense for young families who have few assets and large debts, since the family may be left in a vulnerable situation if one of the spouses dies and all of the assets flow through the estate in such a way that they can be accessed by creditors.

4. Do I need witnesses when doing a will? Not always, but in most cases, yes. In Alberta, a person can create a holographic will. A holographic will is simply a will written entirely in the testator's own handwriting. If you have prepared a holographic will, it does not need to be signed by witnesses to be legally valid. I strongly recommend against writing holographic wills because a will prepared without legal advise is a will that is more likely to contain significant mistakes and is more likely to face legal challenges from friends and family after you have died.