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What happens if you die without a will?

If you die without a will — legally known as “intestate” — you may be leaving a complicated mess for your loved ones and missing an opportunity to distribute your assets in your preferred, more meaningful way. Dying intestate essentially means you don’t get to decide how your estate is split up — the province does.

When someone dies intestate, the applicable provincial succession law kicks in. Here’s a brief overview of what that could mean for your estate.

You don’t have an executor

A will names your executor, the person who will manage your estate. But if you’re intestate, a court will appoint an administrator to handle your affairs. This will typically be a family member but again, it’s an important decision that someone else is making for you. Family member or friends can apply to be your administrator, but this can lead to . . .

More potential for disputes

Anyone applying to be your administrator needs the consent of every person who has an equal right to apply. Protracted disagreements can lead to a court making the decision.

Then, if the court appoints a person everyone can’t agree on, it can lead to disputes over who gets what and why. 

Everything goes to my spouse, right?

Not necessarily. If your have no children, the spouse generally does inherit everything. When children are involved, the spouse may get a “preferential share” of the estate, with the rest divided into fractions depending on the number of kids.

This prevents you from specifying certain gifts for certain people, or bequeathing different amounts to different beneficiaries.

“Legalese” can exclude loved ones from inheriting anything

Some provincial inheritance laws don’t recognize common-law partners and many do not recognize stepchildren as a “child” in the legal sense. So if you die intestate, some of your loved ones may be cut out of the estate.

No control over guardianship

A will can name a guardian for any children but, in the absence of a will, a court will appoint one. Disputes can arise over the court’s choice, leading to delays and court costs. Not to mention the toll on the children from all the uncertainty.

Court costs and taxes can eat up more of your estate

Intestacy can lead to additional court costs, lawyer fees, and higher taxes that a proper, official will could avoid or defer. Drawing up a proper will is comparatively cheap when weighed against the costs from administering assets of an intestacy.

Creating a will can be a fairly simple process, one that you can even do yourself. Depending on your wishes and your assets, it may be useful to seek legal and financial advice to avoid any disputes over your estate.