May 19, 2020
TORONTO — Florence McCambridge had never thought to put together a will because she and her husband don't have any kids, but their border terrier Finnegan and a scroll through social media late last year changed their minds.
"I saw a tweet...where someone mentioned something about how you should have a will if you have a pet, and it was something that I never really thought of before," the Toronto-based writer recalled.
"I wanted to make sure that I leave instructions (for him) should something happen to both of us, so I think that put the idea in my head."
Then McCambridge discovered Willful, a Toronto business that helps Canadians create legal wills online. The service asks users to fill out personal details about their afterlife preferences and then spits out a personalized will.
Companies like Willful and competitors Legal Wills and Epilogue have been popping up as Canadians look for ways to lower the cost and hassle of preparing for the end of their life. However, wading into the world of online will services can be tricky — and not a good idea for everyone.
Willful co-founder Erin Bury said the pandemic has driven demand for her services, boosting website traffic by 350 per cent in the last 60 days and sales 687 per cent compared with the same period last year.
Bury said most people create a will when they have kids or get married, but it's wise to write one if you have any dependents, a registered retirement savings plan, assets like a house or family heirlooms or prized possessions you would like to give to someone.
"I always say to people who are over the age of 18, you might not need a will if you're 19, you don't have pets, you don't have kids, you have $4 to your name, and you're living with your parents, but you absolutely need a power of attorney, which deals with what happens if you're incapacitated and still alive and you need someone to make decisions on your behalf," she said.
Bury thinks getting a will written by a lawyer is a great option she wouldn't deter anyone from, but she also believes services like hers are valuable because they offer convenience.
However, she warned there are definitely situations where an online will is "not the right fit."
"If they have a child or a dependent with a disability and they have to set up what's called a Henson trust, that is something that is too complex for us," she said. "We don't support co-executors or co-powers of attorney... and we don't support the appointment of a professional executor, so if you wanted to appoint RBC or Scotiabank as your executor instead of appointing a family member or friend, then you would have to go to a lawyer to get that written in."
Margaret O'Sullivan, a managing partner at O'Sullivan Estate Lawyers LLP in Toronto, said before the pandemic she was noticing wills getting more complicated because of situations like blended marriages and mixed families.
"There are situations involving people with assets in different countries or they may have come from somewhere else but still have assets somewhere else and they need to understand that they have a more complex situation and they require planning in each of those jurisdictions," O'Sullivan said.
She cautions them about using online will services, which she suggests are most appropriate for someone who has modest assets and a simple family situation.
Even then, she said people using online services should beware that such products can sometimes oversimplify someone's wishes to the point where they don't capture a person's full intentions.
And if you are opting for an online will service because of cost, she added, "you often get what you pay for."
Wills can often be completed for between $500 and $800 by lawyers, which she said is on par with what many spend on the gym or landscaping for their homes.
"And given the importance of the document the impact that will have on your family, one would think that the priority should not be trying to get the lowest cost," she said.
McCambridge didn't shop around for online will services, but recommended others do.
If you're unsure, she said some services have options that let you start writing a will for free to give you a sense of what they offer and what type of questions you'll be asked.
"If you got started and realize your situation was too complex for the service, you could you can stop it any time," she said. "It also just gets you comfortable with the idea of doing this type of document and just having this in your life."
If you go with an online service, pay close attention to whether you can make changes to a will months or years after creating it without having to pay a hefty fee or buy into a subscription plan, Bury added.
She also reminded online will users that their work isn't done once they've plugged in all their information online.
All wills have to be printed out, signed by two witnesses in your presence and saved in a hard copy.
The only province that has allowed for any part of that process to move to a digital format during the pandemic is Ontario, whose attorney general issued an order under the Emergency Act allowing for virtual witnessing in April. The allowance is only in effect until the emergency order is lifted.
Wills still cannot be digitally signed or stored, Bury added.
"Unfortunately, there's no good technology solution right now to actually be able to solve for that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press