Many people think they only have an estate when they pass away. However, everyone has an estate while alive as well as after death.
Estate law is actually composed of several inter-related areas that govern all aspects of a person's estate before and after death. Some of the relevant areas of law include: Wills, trusts, powers of attorney, estate administration and probate law, family law, real estate, business law and taxation. Lawyers practising estate law are familiar with all of these areas in order to provide comprehensive advice and solutions. They also work with other advisors of the client, such as financial and insurance advisors as well as accountants, to facilitate proper coordination overall.
You do not have to be rich to benefit from estate planning. The purpose of good planning is coordination and prevention of disputes. Everything is relative. Even if you have a small estate, it is still important to make sure you protect it while alive and put plans in place that will lead to a smooth administration when you are gone. Lack of planning and poor documentation can lead to delays, extra costs, disputes and even expensive litigation while alive or after you pass. This is not the legacy most people want to leave.
Business owners should ensure that their business affairs are coordinated with their estate plans otherwise there can be legal disputes and extra expenses including missed tax planning opportunities. Without a proper succession plan, it might be necessary to sell the business instead of transferring it to the next generation or key employees.
Wills, trusts and powers of attorney are documents used to record a person's wishes about their estate plans. Others that can be relevant include beneficiary designations, title documents to real estate and contracts such as family law or shareholder agreements and even joint account agreements. Everything has to work together to get the best results. It's sort of like assembling your own custom puzzle that you can change as circumstances dictate over time. There is no "one size fits all" solution and preparing a document in isolation can lead to unpleasant results.
Estate administration covers a broad range of issues and activities including: probate applications and interpreting the Will; recovering assets and paying debts; transferring assets to beneficiaries; setting up testamentary trusts for beneficiaries; investment rules for assets; reporting the finances of the estate to beneficiaries and obtaining releases from them; post-mortem tax planning; business windup; as well as general legal advice to the executor to ensure they fulfill their obligations without incurring unnecessary risk. During the administration process, issues such as the rights of a former spouse or dependant adult child can also arise. Estate lawyers can assist clients with a wide range of situations that might arise including advising beneficiaries who are uncertain about what is happening in an estate.
Sometimes even the best planning does not unfold as planned or life can deliver an unexpected surprise. This can lead to disputes about the validity of a Will, the terms of a Will or trust, or the actions of an executor, trustee or attorney for property, for example. In these cases, estate dispute resolution is needed.
For more detailed information about Wills and estates, visit www.makeawillcanada.ca.