The Covid-19 pandemic is not just changing the world outside. It’s having an effect on the way we think about the rest of our lives – and what happens at the end.
Lawyers across Canada say they’re seeing an uptick in people preparing their wills – and the North is no different. NWT lawyer Garth Wallbridge estimates that in recent weeks he’s worked on twice as many wills and related documents as the same time last year.
“What they’re saying generally is, ‘I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time and now I realize I really do need to do it now,’” he said of recent clients.
Wallbridge said in his experience, it’s generally older people who think about putting a will in place. But he said anyone who has children or other dependants, or any other major responsibilities, should consider completing a will in case anything should happen to them.
“I’d be overstating it a little bit if I said it was negligent not to have a will, but that’s not much of an overstatement,” he said.
“As soon as you start to have a little more complicated, a little more adult life, then you should be thinking of a will.”
According to an Angus Reid Institute poll, just over half of Canadians have no last will and testament in place and only 35 percent had one that was up to date. The poll found people aged 55 and older were four times as likely to have an up-to-date will as those aged 18 to 34.
Wallbridge said there are three things people need to consider when preparing a will.
The first is guardianship, or designating someone who can take care of dependants if you die.
“Most of us have who have young children would have some one person that we’d really like to think we could call upon to be responsible for our young child or children if we were to die,” Wallbridge said, adding it’s good to consider a backup option, too.
The second thing people need to think about, Wallbridge said, is what to do with your estate, or any money and property you own. He noted that in a will you can ensure particular items, like a painting or a cabin, pass to a specific person.
The final thing you need to consider, Wallbridge said, is what you want done with your body when you die. He said this not only includes whether you want to be cremated, have a burial plot, or want to donate your organs, but if there are any family or cultural traditions you want followed or a particular pastor you’d like to oversee your funeral.
“All sorts of things like that we put in wills,” he said.
It’s not just a will that people should think about having, Wallbridge said. You should also consider a living will and what is known as a “springing, enduring power of attorney.”
A living will (also known as a personal, advance, or health care directive) is a legal document that outlines a person’s wishes for end-of-life medical care if they’re unable to communicate.
A power of attorney is a legal document that gives someone the authority to manage money or property on someone else’s behalf. That authority can be limited to a specific time period or task, like selling a house.
An enduring or continuing power of attorney lets an attorney act for you if you become mentally incapable. It can take effect as soon as you sign it or “spring” into action once you become mentally incapable.
“That’s really what most people want when they’re planning their wills and estates,” Wallbridge said. “So those three documents go together quite well.”
Wallbridge said he and other lawyers have found ways to help clients plan wills and related documents through email and by phone during the pandemic’s restrictions on gathering. There are also companies that sell do-it-yourself legal will kits online or by mail.
A handwritten will, or holographic will, is also accepted by the courts in the Northwest Territories. This doesn’t require a lawyer or witnesses and just needs to be written, not typed or recorded, and signed by the testator (person writing the will) to be considered valid.
Wallbridge said holographic wills are problematic as they’re often challenged in courts, but they can be used in an emergency – for example, if someone is seriously injured on the land and worried they may die without a will. In 1948, a Saskatchewan farmer famously etched his will onto a tractor fender with a pocket knife after he was pinned underneath the vehicle.
“It’s a real last-ditch kind of ‘Hail Mary’ pass. It’s not something that I or any other lawyer would ever recommend,” Wallbridge said.