It’s a sad, but familiar story. If we haven’t gone through the experience ourselves, most of us have a friend or relative who has experienced the painful process of having to sort out a loved one’s assets and belongings after they have passed away without clear instructions or access to the necessary documents. Grieving a loss is difficult enough without having to wade through endless paperwork and legal forms. The lack of clarity can also cause rifts between family members that can last years – sometimes even lifetimes.
So how can we avoid this painful situation? Is having a will enough?
I connected with Moms at Work Collective member Sara Hillier to learn more about the estate planning process. She’s the Director of Estate Solutions at ClearEstate, a state-of-the-art digital platform backed by a team of dedicated estate professionals.
Founded in Montreal, ClearEstate now serves jurisdictions across North America. Sara joined me over Zoom from her home office in Toronto where she lives with her partner and three kids ages 4, 6 and 8.
Sara has been supporting families with estate planning and settlement for many years and even with her professional knowledge and experience, she says when grief hit home after she lost her dad in 2018, she was in no position to deal with the administrative burden involved.
“Grief never really goes away, it comes in waves, some bigger than others, but in those early days those waves really knock you over. You can’t expect people going through some of the worst moments of their lives to be in the right headspace to deal with the administrative burden of estate settlement. Their time is really needed to focus on themselves and their loved ones so everyone can begin to heal.”
Sara explained that the most important thing you can do to help lessen the burden on loved ones is to properly plan for your estate settlement. An estate plan is a dynamic and ongoing process that’s meant to ensure that all of your assets are transferred as seamlessly as possible to the person or people of your choosing.
“People often think ‘oh, my situation isn’t that complicated so I don’t need an estate plan’. But the reality is, it’s the lack of a careful, thoughtful estate plan that makes things complicated,” comments Sara. “Everyone who’s of the age of majority really should have a will and should think about their estate plan.”
While a valid, legal will is an important piece, estate plans are highly personalized and should include all of the necessary documents and instructions to ensure your final wishes are carried out.
One of the first steps is creating a detailed inventory of your personal belongings and assets including things like your banking and registered account details, any debts such as a mortgage or line of credit, and even your iCloud login information if you want to ensure your loved ones can access your photos after you’re gone.
“A lot of people really don’t think about personal effects that have sentimental value but honestly, it’s a common way that things go wrong in estate settlement,” says Sara. “While an item may not have a high monetary value, to your loved ones it might be priceless.”
A good plan, according to Sara, will also include strategies – set up with the help of an estate professional who understands the laws where you live – to help reduce fees and taxes so more of the estate is left to your beneficiaries. In Canada, inheritance and tax laws vary from province to province and this can significantly impact the value of the financial assets you pass along to your loved ones.
While all this can start to sound a bit overwhelming, luckily ClearEstate’s entire business model was designed to make the estate planning and settlement process as simple and accessible as possible.
ClearEstate's estate plans include a dedicated estate professional who will guide you through every step and every form needed to set up your plan, collect your documents and name your beneficiaries. You'll also have 24/7 access to your online estate dashboard, complete with a real-time inventory of assets and liabilities, a family tree and a visual distribution plan.
At all times, there are real, helpful people – like Sara – who can provide guidance and support along the way. And if you are faced with the daunting task of acting as an executor yourself, ClearEstate can help with that too.
“We’ve really thought of everything so you don’t have to,” says Sara. “Our goal is to make what is already a difficult time less complicated and stressful.”
When it comes to choosing an estate executor – the person who you assign to handle your financial details after you pass away – ClearEstate can help with that decision. Or, if you don’t have someone to act in that capacity, they offer a plan where ClearEstate can act as your professional executor so you don’t have to burden a loved one with a process that can take anywhere from 150 to 400 hours over a period of 16 to 18 months and involves heaps of paperwork.
"Acting as an executor is an honour, but is also a significant responsibility and even liability,” notes Sara. ”When it comes to choosing yours, it should be someone who you trust, is financially responsible, and with the time and energy to navigate the process during what will already be a challenging time. And if you are thinking about appointing co-executors to act together, you must also think carefully about how they will get along and how they will handle disagreements."
ClearEstate offers a secure digital vault where estate executors can access their loved one’s estate plan along with all of the documents and relevant account details, saving them countless hours of digging for information.
By leveraging technology and giving you access to lawyers, notaries and accountants on an only-when-you-actually-need-them-basis, ClearEstate makes estate planning more affordable.
On average, ClearEstate saves their clients 120 hours and $8,500 in fees during the estate settlement process. Their most popular plan for an Ontario-based individual costs $1,188 and $2,028 for couples, plus an annual fee of $99 (individual) or $149 (couple). This includes the support of a dedicated estate professional, a step-by-step process to compile your information, complete your plan and create your will and power of attorney documents and then regular check ins to ensure your plan is always up to date.
“A good rule of thumb is to review your plan once a year or whenever your circumstances change,” explains Sara. “For example, if you get married or divorced, if you have a new child or grandchild, or receive an inheritance of your own.”
The amount of time it takes to set up an estate plan with ClearEstate varies depending on how quickly you can collect all of the required information and how much time you need to make decisions like what you want to do with your assets and who you want to assign as your executor and guardian for your children. But as Sara makes clear, it’s time well spent.
“As hard as it is to think about a time when we’ll no longer be around, leaving behind a carefully thought out estate plan that you’ve discussed with the people closest to you beforehand will ensure they won’t be burdened with unnecessary stress during an already difficult time,” Sara adds.
So, while setting up an estate plan may not be the birthday gifts you had in mind for your family this year, according to Sara, “having an estate plan is one of the greatest gifts you can leave your loved ones.”
Thanks to our sponsor ClearEstate for helping us put together this guide to estate planning for busy parents.
ClearEstate is the leading tech-enabled company of estate experts. They make the estate planning and settlement process less complicated and more affordable. You can book a free consultation here.
Since estate planning can be a challenging topic to bring up with a loved one, ClearEstate offers regular webinars and resources on their blog offering guidance and support.