“All I need is a simple will”

How much does a will cost?

Under the heading “Frequently Asked Questions”, this is probably number one in my practise. As a lawyer, I am most likely going to answer “that depends”, but today I am going to try to be a bit more specific.

It won’t be easy. There are a number of expectations about what a will costs. Usually the question “how much do you charge for a will” is immediately followed by the statement “all I need is a simple will”. Well, you may be right, but how do you know that? And as your legal adviser, how can I know that?

Let me give you an example of why there is really no such thing as a “simple will”.

Meet my clients Fred and Ginger (ok, I admit it, those are not their real names). They have been married for almost 40 years now, and they have one daughter, Trudy, age 38. They want to leave everything to each other, and on the second death, everything is to go to Trudy. Trudy lives in Los Angeles with her husband Mark and Mark’s son from his first marriage. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

So here is what those Wills might look like: “If my spouse [Fred/Ginger] survives me, then I give all the residue of my Estate to him/her. If [Fred/Ginger] does not survive me, then I give all the residue of my Estate to my daughter Trudy.” End of story, right? Simple!

But what if Trudy predeceases both Fred and Ginger? Horrible though that would be, it can happen. Hmmm, they hadn’t thought about that. So I sit down the Fred and Ginger and ask them a number of questions. Would they want Trudy’s share to go to Mark and/or his son? (Not really) Do Fred and/or Ginger have siblings they might want to give their estate to? (No Way!) Do either of them have a favourite charity? (Yes, but….)

During the interview, it came out that Trudy had had a child when she was a teenager, whom she had given up for adoption. That child (let’s call her Katy) is now in her early twenties. She searched for and “found” Trudy and has formed a close relationship with Fred and Ginger, her “bio-grands” as she calls them. Fred and Ginger had wrongly assumed that if “something happened” to Trudy, the estate would automatically go to Katy. They are not close to Mark or Mark’s son, and really hadn’t thought of leaving anything to them, especially as Mark’s parents are very well off. But then, so are Katy’s adoptive parents. Charities sounded like an attractive alternative, but Fred is adamant about benefiting medical charities while Ginger loves the arts and would rather see her money go to the support of dance or music.

Still sound like a simple will? In fact, the wills themselves, once they were done, were relatively straight forward: all to each other, on the second death to Trudy, and if she had predeceased, a fixed amount to Mark’s son, half of the rest to Katy and the other half equally among four charities. If Katy had also predeceased, the whole residue equally among the four charities. Simple!

But getting to that stage took several hours of meetings, drafting and going back and forth with emails.

So back to the frequently asked question: how much for a will? The two wills I did for Fred and Ginger ended up costing them about $1,200.

Considering that the cost included:
• a review of all of their assets to see if they could re-structure ownership to save or defer probate fees and other taxes (potential savings of around $30,000),
• a consideration of whether their investments made sense and if perhaps some life insurance could help (and a referral to a financial planner/life insurance expert),
• a discussion about how to simplify their estate for themselves and eventually their executors,
• an explanation about the legal effects of adoption, and
• ensuring that their estate goes where they really want it to go,

would you consider that value for money? Fred and Ginger sure did.

About Maria Holman

I am a lawyer with over 28 years of experience in drawing up wills, trusts and estate plans, helping clients with probate and estate administrations and advising business owners and families about planning for the future. You can find me at Webster Hudson & Coombe LLP in Vancouver, BC
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