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Filtering Out the Noise in Your Estate Planning

You've heard it before: there's a lot of information out there these days. Thousands of hours of Youtube content are uploaded every day. Wikipedia entries are updated every minute. Blogs are written, websites created and refreshed. You can find information, accurate or not, on just about any subject, no matter how obscure, and instructions on how to do just about anything, from baking cookies to building a bomb. This overload of information extends to many important aspects of your life, and estate planning is not excluded. Google the words "estate planning Ontario" and you'll get thousands of results. Everyone has advice to give if you ask (or even if you don't). So how do you decide what to follow and what to ignore?

First, it's important to remember the difference between information and advice. In order to be an educated consumer, you should take the time to learn about estate planning in the place where you live. This helps you know a little about what is and what is not possible in that jurisdiction, what you should consider when starting to think about your estate planning, and what kind of estate planning you need and want. Advice on your particular situation from a qualified professional will be important to determining what information is relevant to your situation. For example, if you die without a will, the government could get your money, but only if you have absolutely no living next-of-kin at all. 

Next, as my university professors were forever repeating, consider the source. When you do research, especially online, you need to know something about the source of the material you are reading, so you can evaluate how reliable it is. Who posted this? Do they have any professional qualifications which suggest they know what they are talking about? Is this information up-to-date or has the law potentially changed since it was published?

This analysis is equally important when you get advice from someone in person. Do they have the necessary qualifications and experience to be able to advise me accurately? For example, estate professionals hear numerous stories of people being advised by those purporting to provide financial advice to put their assets in joint names with one or more children, mainly in order to avoid probate fees. Sometimes this is a good idea, sometimes it can be disastrous--in one recent case, parents who put an asset into joint names with their son ended up sorely regretting it when the son later separated from his spouse, who then successfully claimed a share of the value of this asset. (See our advisory "Planning to Minimize Estate Taxes" for further information on possible Estate Administration Tax (probate fees) minimization techniques.)

Further, the person giving you "advice" may not always be thinking solely of your best interests, even if you trust their expertise. An advisor may be trying to sell you a product or service, and in doing so may give you only the information or advice necessary to make the product or service attractive. It is very difficult to provide independent advice on products or services if your livelihood depends on selling them, as fulsome, objective advice may cause people not to buy. There are advisors who can and do give such advice, but you need to be sure that's the type of person you're dealing with and clarify whether there are any such conflicts of interest or whether the advice is truly independent.

There is so much information and advice out there that it can become a caca-phony of sound, preventing us from sorting out the good from the bad and yes--the ugly. In order to create an effective estate plan which is truly in your best interests, you need to get expert advice to help you filter out the noise, unlearn common misconceptions, prevent mistakes that lead to unexpected consequences which can be both expensive and destructive to your family and your peace of mind.

- Susannah B. Roth

Please join us for our next blog post when we look at addressing the implications of succession and inheritance taxes in other jurisdictions in your estate plan.

The comments offered in this article are meant to be general in nature, are limited to the law of Ontario, Canada, and are not intended to provide legal advice on any individual situation. Before taking any action involving your individual situation, you should seek legal advice to ensure it is appropriate to your personal circumstances.

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