Personal Finance

Keeping your will a secret can be a wealth destroyer, says author Tom Deans.
By Rudy Luukko | 02/12/16

The scene: A lawyer is reading to bereaved family members the will of a departed loved one. The reaction in the room: audible gasps. Some are pleased to be receiving a surprising windfall. Others are shocked and angry that they'll be getting little or nothing. Such scenarios are a consequence of keeping your will a secret, says Ontario-based author and speaker Tom Deans, an expert on inter-generational wealth transfer.

About the Author
Rudy Luukko is a freelance writer who contributes to Morningstar.ca on topics involving fund industry trends and regulatory issues. He retired in May 2018 from his position as editor, investment and personal finance, at Morningstar Canada, where he had worked since 2004. He has also worked as an editor and writer for various general, specialty and institutional media, and he has co-authored courses for the Canadian Securities Institute. Follow Rudy on Twitter: @RudyLuukko.

Failing to discuss the terms of your will with your intended beneficiaries is one of the worst mistakes you can make in estate planning, says Deans. His published work includes the book Willing Wisdom, which provides advice on how people can prepare for the inevitable. He warns that surviving family members who feel they received less than they deserved or expected may resort to lawsuits to claim what they believe to be their fair share of the estate.

"Silence is the great destroyer of family wealth," said Deans, who was the featured speaker at an October event in Toronto sponsored by HighView Financial Group, an Oakville, Ontario-based investment-counselling firm that serves affluent families and foundations. Deans is also author of Every Family's Business: 12 Common Sense Questions to Protect Your Wealth.

Leaving the contents of a will a surprise may also leave the heirs ill equipped to handle their newly acquired wealth. "Someone in this province inherited today a lot of money, and it will destroy them," Deans told the HighView audience.

Deans is a strong advocate of holding family meetings, at least annually, to discuss wills. His recommended day to do so is on birthdays, which is when family members are more likely to be together anyway. "It's a great day to review your will," he says.

By asking the right questions at family meetings, Deans says decisions on estate planning will evolve from the open sharing of ideas, and there will be no surprises.

In Willing Wisdom, Deans suggests seven questions to ask at family meetings. For example, there's his Question 3: "How would an inheritance advance your dreams for yourself, your family and your community?" The six other questions encompass family relationships, how past generations acquired their wealth, what's considered fair and/or equal, how previous generations of the family bequeathed their wealth, what roles adult children played in caring for their aging parents, and describing in detail your last wishes.

Having ongoing conversations over the years about the terms of your will is an opportunity to share your dreams, wisdom and values with your children. "And isn't that what a will is: a declaration of our love and hope for others to continue our work using our wisdom and wealth?" Deans writes.

The author's advice also applies to people who do not have children. He suggests substituting family members or friends in the planning and consultation process.

Charitable donation is another area of expertise for Deans, who holds a PhD in politics from the University of Warwick in England and who conducted doctoral research on the roles of charities and the state.

Deans recommends holding meetings with representatives of charitable organizations before agreeing to make a posthumous donation. This will help determine whether there is alignment of values between the donor and recipient, and whether the charity being considered is more deserving than other worthy causes.

Among the other tips from Deans on crafting wills and distributing your wealth to your heirs:

  • While you are living, do not financially favour adult children who make lifestyle-related decisions such a getting married or buying a home. Deans says this will seem like a reward for certain types of actions, and may be seen as unfair by children who, for example, remain single or decide they'd rather rent than buy a home.
  • If one adult child does most of the work or incurred the greatest expenses in caring for aging parents, compensate this child financially at the time, rather than bequeathing to them a larger portion of the estate.
  • The provision or promise of care for elderly parents should not be something to expect from adult children, nor a precondition to receiving money.
  • Even if your adult children are well off, do not skip a generation when crafting your will. With the exception of small bequests, leaving your assets to your grandchildren will undermine parent-child relationships.

All this assumes that you have a will, and that it is up to date. The worst estate-planning mistake of all, says Deans, is to have no will. He estimates that this is true for a shockingly high 12.5 million Canadian adults.

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