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Lawyers love to plan for conflict — prepare your estate trustee (executor) for their job  

26 July, 2022 • Blog
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For most families, when a loved one dies it is a time to come together, grieve, and celebrate life and each other. It is rarely a time of conflict. But … well … um … I hate to tell you this … occasionally it is. All you need to do is read a couple estate-law decisions from Ontario Superior Court to understand conflicts do happen, and they are often expensive.

Lawyers, of course, love to plan for the possibility of a worst-case scenario. Mitigating risk is fundamental to quality legal service. A lawyer helping you with your estate plan should inform you about things you can do to minimize the likelihood your death will result in an expensive legal conflict. Even close families who do not foresee any problems should at least consider the possibility.

What your estate trustee may need

When preparing your will, one of the most important decisions is who to appoint as estate trustee. They will have to administer your estate, which can be a lot of work. They also take on substantial legal obligations and, if there is a dispute, your estate trustee may have to defend themselves.  

To efficiently administer your affairs, your estate trustee will need to know about your assets and liabilities. To defend themselves, if the worst case does happen (I know, I know… it won’t), your estate trustee may need to show they clearly understood your intentions.

Ideally, you should maintain an up-to-date document with all the information your estate trustee may need. Give them this document in advance or store it with your will. Whichever you do, make sure your trustee knows where to find your will.

Keep an up-to-date document with important information

The document you keep for your estate trustee should include the following:

  • Contact information for your financial advisor, banking contact, accountant, lawyer, beneficiaries, and anyone else who knows of your affairs
  • The location of your recent tax returns
  • The location of life insurance policies
  • A list of your accounts, including financial institutions and account numbers (investment accounts, bank accounts, RRSPs, RRIFs, TFSAs, RESPS, etc.)
  • A list of major assets including safety deposit boxes, real estate, notable personal property, private company share certificates, etc.
  • A list of debts including mortgages, lines of credit, credit cards (include the financial institutions’ information), and private loans
  • A list of ongoing monthly expenses like utility payments and subscriptions
  • A list of online accounts and passwords
  • A list of outstanding debts owed to you (for instance, loans to family members)

Funeral plans

Make your own funeral arrangements or communicate your wishes to your family and your estate trustee. In Ontario, your estate trustee has the authority to deal with your remains. You do not want them to have a different impression of your wishes than your family has. Ensuring everyone is on the same page will minimize the likelihood of conflict and where you are to be buried or what is to become of your remains.

Will anything come as a surprise?

Ideally, your estate trustee and beneficiaries will know your intentions before you die — at least the broad strokes. You may not want to tell everybody everything in your will, but you do not want your will to come as a shock. If you hide some big surprises, you increase the likelihood of conflict between your family, beneficiaries, and estate trustee.

A good question to ask yourself is, “Will any part of my will come as a surprise to those who are closest to me?” If so, consider documenting your intentions in a letter and keeping it with your will. For example, a letter which clearly describes why you are leaving one of your adult children out of your will may help your estate trustee defend themselves if that child is surprised and disputes your will.

The information in this article is not a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed lawyer in your jurisdiction, wherever that may be.

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