Using an Estate planning lawyer? Here are some questions to ask…

Wondering whether our service is right for you? considering using an estate planning lawyer?

We know that 62 percent of Canadians don’t have a Will in place. A further 12 percent have a Will, but it’s out of date.

Even with that harrowing stat, the legal community still try to warn people against preparing their own Will. Claiming that you can only obtain a quality Last Will and Testament from an estate planning lawyer. Any approach to writing your own Will is going to result in pain for your family and loved ones.

In truth, there was some merit in this argument about 20 years ago when the only do-it-yourself Will writing options were a blank piece of paper, or a blank form Will kit. Both approaches are a disaster waiting to happen, and many estates went through protracted legal battles to settle an ambiguous instruction. Or worse, a Will was simply thrown out because it wasn’t signed correctly.

Thankfully in the years since came online in 2001, the online interactive Will writing services have come a long way. Much like tax preparation software that faced a similar backlash from tax preparing accountants, the use of online interactive Will writing services has grown year by year.

Will writing office

Online Will writing services have also improved to a point that for 99 percent of people, the final Will document is indistinguishable from a Will created by an estate planning lawyer. We know this because we use the exact same software used by any estate planning lawyer in Canada. We’ve just give you direct access to it.

The natural assumption for most is that people come to a service like ours because it is cheaper than an estate planning lawyer. This is of course true, but there are many other benefits that make a service like preferable over the services of an estate planning lawyer. The questions below will give some insight into these benefits.

How much does a Will cost? and Why?

The first question to ask any estate planning lawyer is how much they charge for a Will. You have to ask because it is almost impossible to find a price on a website. The most common answer is that “it varies”. Some law firms might tell you that a Will “starts at $500” without any clear indication as to what would increase a price from the opening offer.

It is intimidating talking to law offices. I phoned a few myself in researching this article and they are not very forthcoming with information.

The next question that needs to be asked of an estate planning lawyer is “why does the Will cost this much?”

The price is not determined by a sense of “value for money”, but calculated based on a lawyerly expectation of how much their time is worth.

We shudder at the idea that a popular law profession blog “Above the Law” run an annual contest for the most sumptuous law offices and have a special section on their website called “lawyerly lairs” a celebration of how opulent lawyers’ home and their offices can be. Here’s a selection, sadly, many of the lawyers have not been entirely honest with their practice.

estate planning lawyer

To be fair, many of the most recent celebrations of a decadent lifestyle are profiling crooked lawyers, so there is an argument to say that many of the multi-million dollar properties were not acquired through honest lawyering, but I think it gives an interesting glimpse into the profession. It certainly provides some insight into what interests the readers of this law blog.


Once you have received your quote from the estate planning lawyer, you then have to decide whether they are offering you value for money. The following questions may provide some insight into this question.

Can I update my Will whenever I want to?

Once you have established how much it costs to prepare your Will, it is important to understand the costs of updating your Will. In a recent survey we found that 12 percent of Canadians have a Will, but it is out of date. For Canadians over the age of 65, this rose to 21 percent.

The unfortunate consequence of writing your Will with an estate planning lawyer is that it can be out of date by the time you get home. You may not have changed your mind about the distribution of your estate, but supposing your alternate Executor is involved in an accident, or is taken ill. Or your chosen guardian has accepted a new job in Dubai. Or your sister announces her divorce.

Changes in the circumstances of anybody named in your Will may trigger a need to review and update your Will. It is important to know how much your estate planning lawyer will charge for this type of update.

We have many people come to us after being quoted $100 per amendment to a Will. Most recently an elderly woman was quote $400 to make 4 simple changes to her document. She came to us instead, knowing that she could create a brand new Will for $39.95 and then make changes whenever she needed to.

The real surprise for her is that the Will she created using our service was not a cheap substitute. It was word-for-word identical to the one prepared five years earlier by an estate planning lawyer for $600.

Are you an estate planning lawyer? (how many Wills do you write?)

In Canada we have something called the “unauthorized practice of law“. It’s a good law which prevents anybody from passing themselves off as a lawyer and handing out legal advice. It means that only licensed lawyers can provide legal advice.

However, what this rule doesn’t cover is a lawyer working in one area, offering legal advice in a completely different area. Under the current system, a human rights lawyer, or patent attorney, can write your Will. Even through they are not an estate planning lawyer. Many problems arise at probate because the lawyer who prepared the Will had no experience in Will writing.

Like this law firm who explain;

Recently, our firm was asked to revise a client’s financial Power of Attorney. To be thorough, attorney Russell Mobley asked to see the testator’s Will that had been prepared by another law firm. When reviewing the Will, Russell discovered that the drafter had omitted key language from the document which meant that approximately $10 million dollars in assets would pass to beneficiaries other than those whom the testator intended. In other words, unless the testator executed a new Will, a court likely would require the executor to distribute the property contrary to the testator’s true wishes.

A quick look at some cases in Ontario reveal;

A person who wanted to leave a $2,500 bequest, but the estate planning lawyer typed $25,000 and nobody noticed until after the testator died.

A variety of different situations here and here where they was a miscommunication or slip-up because there was international property involved or secondary Wills.

It is important to understand that a lawyer is not necessarily an estate planning lawyer. So ask.

Do you make house calls?

There is a common misconception that people use our service because we are affordable. This is true, but it is by no means the main attraction.

One key group drawn to our service is professional couples with young children. They understand the importance of a Will. Particularly the naming of guardians for their children. But there is no way that they can co-ordinate both partners visiting a lawyer’s office and covering childcare. It’s enough of an obstacle that “writing a Will” never makes it to the top of the To-Do list.

There are another important group who need Wills; seniors. Our study found that the age group most likely to have a Will in place that was not up-to-date was the over 65 category. Some people have mobility issues, made worse by the difficult Canadian winters.

It’s a fair question to ask if your estate planning lawyer will come to you to earn their business.

How complicated can I make my Will?

Our service attracts many people because they need privacy and discretion. People often ask how many specific gifts they can include in their Will, and the answer from us is “there is no limit”. If you wish you can list every important item that you own, and name a separate beneficiary for each item. You would also include a “residual clause” for everything else, but you are free to leave your signed Gretzky jersey to your nephew, your family photo album to your niece, $1,000 to your local cat shelter and your piano to your local scout group.

You don’t have to write your Will in one sitting. You can take up to a year to prepare your Will to get it exactly the way you want it. You can then update it as many times as you wish throughout that year. Every time you make an update, print it and sign it in the presence of two witnesses.

It’s the type of flexibility that you don’t get with an estate planning lawyer.

How will you know when I die?

I know my father wrote his Will with a lawyer, but we can’t find the Will and don’t know which law firm he used. What can we do?

We receive this phone call every week. Firstly, you have to hope that the law firm still exists. Just recently the firm of Heenan Blaikie LLP, with 500 lawyers and four decades of experience dissolved. It happens all the time.

If the lawyer is still practicing, there is little else to do other than start phoning law firms in the city in which this person was living. Good luck if they lived in Toronto, the website claims to have 25,000 lawyers in their directory.

But if nobody can find your Will, then you effectively do not have one. You will be deemed to have died “intestate” (without a Will) and your estate will be distributed according to the Provincial laws.

Unless your estate planning lawyer is a good friend, there is a significant chance that they will not know that you are no longer around. This means that your loved ones will probably not be able to locate your Will.

Of course, when you use a service like the one at this is all taken care of by our MyMessages service. We ensure that the right people receive the right information exactly when they need it.

Do you have anything to help me document my assets? (how do I get that info to the right person at the right time?)

If you write your Will with an estate planning lawyer, you will probably walk out of the office with a five page document and little else. Your lawyer will probably not help you with the most critical step in the estate planning process; the documenting of your assets.

After you have passed away, your Executor will be given the authority to act as you estate administrator. They will then have the daunting task of gathering up your assets. Your Will is going to say something like “I leave the remainder of my estate to two children in equal shares”.

How is your Executor going to track down your assets? How will your Executor know when they have completed this exercise? How can you be sure that your Executor will find all of your assets? The Bank of Canada regularly update the “unclaimed balances” website.

At the end of December 2015, approximately 1.7 million unclaimed balances, worth some $626 million, were on the Bank’s books.

Most of these assets are bank accounts unclaimed by an estate executor. The owner died, and nobody knew the account existed.

It is worth asking your estate planning lawyer how they can help you ensure that none of your assets go undiscovered. It isn’t as simple as writing everything down because these assets change over time.

At we’ve thought of this, and offer the Executor Assistance tool through the MyLifeLocker service. An online tool that not only allows you to keep your list of asset up-to-date over time, but you can also assign “keyholders” who can view the document at the appropriate time (and not before).

Executor assistance

You can print the book and store it with your Will, or just maintain the online version that can you can update from anywhere in the World at any time.

Can I store other important information with my Will?

Your Will is one part of your estate plan. As well as your financial Power of Attorney and your Living Will (Advance Directives and Healthcare Power of Attorney). But there is much more that you may need to capture and communicate. You should ask your estate planning attorney how to include for example, your funeral wishes as part of your estate plan. At we provide a separate Funeral wishes service.

You may have heard of an”Ethical Will“. It is not a legal document but it is an important part of your legacy.

The generic purpose of the ethical will is to pass on wisdom and love to future generations. Writing can include family history and cultural and spiritual values; blessings and expressions of love for, pride in, hopes and dreams for children and grandchildren; life-lessons and wisdom of life experience; requests for forgiveness for regretted actions; the rationale for philanthropic and personal financial decisions; stories about the meaningful “stuff” for heirs to receive

At we have a free posthumous messages service that supports the creation of an ethical Will. This service allows you to send different messages to different people.

Finally, you may have other assets that must pass to beneficiaries, but these assets don’t belong in your Will. You might have an important spreadsheet, photo, audio file, video, scan of a recipe, master password. These things have to get to the right people when they need them and not before. You could ask your estate planning lawyer if they have any tools to support this.

Of course, at we have a solution! Our Digital Vault service allows you to upload any digital asset and grant access to the files to your Executor at the appropriate time (and not before).

Online service or estate planning lawyer?

It makes us smile when an estate planning lawyer denigrates our service. We have found that in general the legal profession have not adopted many modern tools to help their clients create a complete estate plan. In fact, they have not updated their practices much in decades. The only modern advances for the estate planning profession make their own tasks easier; like the wider use of estate planning software. One of the most widely used estate planning products, used by lawyers promises to “increase billable time and eliminate hours of work”. This image is cut directly from their brochure.

estate planning software

There is nothing here that helps the client.

So before hiring an estate planning lawyer, make sure that you are getting value for your dollar.

Tim Hewson