Estate planning 101 for millennials: why you need a will in your 20s

Sarah-Joyce Battersby
Creating a will may seem morbid, but it’s something every adult should have — even if your only dependent is a dog, and your only asset is Shoppers points. (Getty)

If you believed everything the Internet told you about millennials, you’d think they were a generation of 18-to-35-year-olds with no money, no prospects, and no hope.

While painting such a large group of people with broad strokes is usually reductive, it’s fair to say most young people don’t think much about dying.

And they certainly don’t think about drafting a will.

Some surveys put the number of Canadians without a proper will at around half to two-thirds of adults. When you look at people aged 35 and under it’s more like 77 to 86 per cent, according to a survey by legalwills.ca.

When millennials are putting off home ownership, marriage and children, experts we spoke to still think it’s worthwhile for all adults — even millennials — to create an estate plan. Those same experts also offered some tips on how 18-to-35-year-olds (and people of any age) can create an effective will.

Doing it yourself

From Etsy shops and the rise of maker culture to artisan aficionados, young people are making DIY cool again. But whereas making your own marbled concrete planters for your succulents is cool, making your own will is not, says estate lawyer Janice Dubiansky of Toronto-based Robinsons Law.

“I have seen a number of ‘DIY’ wills that were not prepared properly and would ultimately result in the individual passing away without an effective will,” she said.

Still, if you find yourself on the edge of death with no time for a proper sit-down with a paid professional, a hand-written will could do in a pinch. It must be analog, no digital versions will do, which is actually in keeping with the millennial’s pursuit of a time before computers took over — as seen in the revival of board games, polaroid cameras, and cassette tapes.

These types of wills are called “holographic wills,” which is pretty rad if you ask us. But don’t just scrawl something on a napkin. “That might work on Grey’s,” Dubiansky said, but it’s a risky move IRL.

Reward points

While they may not be rich in actual dollars, most modern millennial consumers are racking up points everywhere from gold stars for ordering a morning coffee at Starbucks to Air Miles points towards an exotic, child-free vacation when stocking up at the liquor store.

While some loyalty point programs do allow you to transfer them to someone else in your will, read the fine print first, said Dubiansky and estate lawyer Aaron Edgar of Toronto’s Edgar Chana Law Professional Corporation.

And while you might be able to leave them, at times the process to transfer points can be complicated and expensive, so Dubiansky advises that it’s sometimes best to just go on that Shoppers spending spree or take that trip you’ve been dreaming about while you can.

Student debt

A more likely financial picture for many young people includes a healthy dose of student debt.
If the borrower dies before the debt is repaid, the debt doesn’t necessarily disappear.

“It should come as no surprise that debt (and taxes!) are some of the first things to be paid out of the assets of your estate,” said Dubiansky.

The executor of the will is put in charge of paying off any debts using the assets from the estate.
If your estate’s debts outnumber the assets, the executor you named may decline the gig, said Edgar.
And with many loans, particularly private ones, parents serve as the guarantor, which can leave them in a bind if you go first.

“If the estate does not have sufficient assets to repay the loan, the bank will be knocking on your parents’ door,” Dubiansky said.

Pinterest-worthy funeral

In the age of elaborate wedding party flash mobs and epic bachelorette parties, the temptation may be bubbling to make the last party you ever throw one for the ages. Dubiansky cautions the will is usually read after the funeral, so if you want a ceremony worthy of a Pinterest board, it’s best to leave those specific instructions to someone in a more direct communication, like an email.

Online afterlife

More and more of our lives are led online, so accounting for those existences once you’ve left this one is important. Facebook has even built a legacy contact function to streamline your social media presence when you’re no longer present.

But Dubiansky points out that more nuts-and-bolts things, like utility bills and bank statements, are only received digitally these days, so it’s a good idea to make a document with important passwords and login information for your executor to reference. It can be typed up and stored in a secure place along with the will (and if you change your passwords, remember to change them on the document, too).

Pets and plant babies

In lieu of actual children, many young people are opting to devote themselves whole-heartedly to raising animals and/or spider plants.

“People are often very concerned about ensuring they provide a good home for their pets upon their death and include these details in their will,” Edgar said. “Pet owners typically specify who should receive their pet upon death, and some also include a cash gift for the person who takes on the care of the pet.”

Getting ahead

Both Edgar and Dubiansky said that the majority of their younger clients start estate planning once they are expecting children. But having a baby doesn’t have to be the main motivator.

“Every adult should have a will,” Dubiansky said, adding she defines adult as anyone over 18, though concedes it’s not a realistic target.

“Having a simple will in place will make the administration process much easier for surviving family members,” she said.

Without a will, a grieving family member has to apply to the courts to be named an executor, an added strain in a difficult moment.

And Dubiansky adds that many people assume the assets will be handed out fairly, but that’s less likely without a will. If you are in a common-law relationship, for example, the surviving partner is not automatically entitled to half your assets. And if you are the sole name on your condo, but you live with a spouse and young child, your kid can be entitled to an equal split on a portion of your assets.

“That means your minor children would own a percentage share in the condominium which I am almost certain you would not want,” she said.