My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Top 10 Estate Planning Mistakes

I think it is fair to suggest, that most of us wish to plan our estates to minimize any income tax and probate fees owing upon our passing. Yet, many of us do not seek professional assistance to deal with the various technical income tax, probate planning and "soft family" issues that must be considered when dealing with our estates.  As such, we often end-up eroding our estates because of unanticipated tax obligations and significant legal costs when family members litigate the estate. Today, Neil Milton an estates expert discusses the Top 10 Estate Planning Mistakes he observes in his practice.

The Top 10 Estate Planning Mistakes

By Neil Milton

There are many widely held myths and misconceptions about wills, probate and estates. These myths and misconceptions lead to estate planning mistakes. These mistakes can cause a lot of damage – both to your wallet and to relationships with family members. In this blog we have gathered 10 of most common and yet easily avoided estate planning mistakes.

1. Not Having a Will

The rules for how an estate is divided in Ontario when there is no will (intestate succession) can have some shocking consequences. Remarkably few people are aware that if you die without a will:
  • Your common law spouse inherits nothing. Zero. (They might have a claim for support, but that is a very different thing).
  • If you are separated but not divorced from a spouse, your legally married, they will inherit the bulk of your estate (The first $200k + a healthy chunk thereafter).
  • If you are legally married and not divorced, your parents and siblings get nothing.
  • If you have ‘step children’ that you have not legally adopted, they get nothing.
Everyone adult should have a will. If you do not have a will, get one now (74% of Canadians do not have an up-to-date will).

2. Do It Yourself Wills

Sure you can save $500 by doing your own will, but that does not mean you should. You can also do your own dental surgery. For both wills and dental work, the results of DIY are rarely satisfactory and often very expensive to fix.

3. Joint Accounts to Avoid Probate Tax

Do not put your investments or bank accounts in the name of one of your adult children to avoid probate tax without proper advice. You may save probate, but you may trigger significant income tax consequences. In addition, you may create a lot of grief and legal fees to fix the mess where the child whose name you put on the account, claims it for their own and the other children sue.

4. Joint Ownership of Houses to Avoid Probate Tax

Do not put one of your adult children on title to your house (“joint tenancy”) to avoid probate tax without very careful proper planning and documentation. You can create income tax issues and unless you document in writing your intention to give the house as a gift to that child to the exclusion of your other children, you do not save probate tax and you create lots of misery and a legal fee bonanza.

5. Assuming Your children get Along

Do your children really get along? Are they really facing similar financial circumstances and stresses? Many children have serious issues with their siblings. Do not assume that just because they are your children that they trust or work well with each other. This is particularly relevant to your choice of executor.

6. Choosing an Executor who is Not Up to the Job

Being an executor is a difficult job, not an honour. Good executors are a rare breed. They are prudent but decisive, can handle conflict (especially among beneficiaries), are attentive to detail, communicate well, are financially savvy, enjoy accounting and taxes, and must complete, send and receive many letters and forms. An ideal executor is tech savvy, and can scan, print, and email at will.

Your favourite caregiver may be a wonderful person, but that does not mean they will be a good executor. Being an executor is a hard job and you should provide for reasonable compensation (“pay peanuts, get monkeys” applies here). Also consider aging – your executor must be able to perform when the time comes, which may be a long time from now. At the very least, you should have an alternate if the primary choice is unable to act.

I strongly recommend that you consider using a professional to handle this complex job at a pre-agreed fair rate of compensation (which does not have to be a flat 5%).

See Mark's post on the duties of being named an executor for more information.

7. Putting Your Executor in a Conflict of Interest

Enormous trust is placed in an executor, and it is very difficult to force an executor to act at all or decently. If you do not trust someone absolutely to behave quickly, properly and fairly as between all beneficiaries, do not appoint them at all. Too many executors have massive conflicts of interest between their interests and the interests of other beneficiaries, and these conflicts were created by the testator.

For instance, if one child lives with you in your home, and you name that child your executor, they have a clear conflict between their desire to stay in the house as long as they can and to avoid paying rent, versus their obligation to sell the home and distribute the estate. It is unfair to them and the other beneficiaries to put them in this awkward spot – choose an executor without a conflict of interest.

8. Hedging Your Bets With Multiple Executors

Being an executor is a hard enough job without having to chase a co-executor for approval and signatures on everything. In most cases you should choose one person as your primary executor, and name an alternate. Do not name co-executors because you don’t trust one or you are too indecisive to choose between them.

9. Not Thinking Gifts Through or Keeping Them up to Date

Just because someone is your child does not mean that they will outlive you. You need to plan for contingencies. Similarly, if you appoint someone a trustee of funds for a minor child, make sure that they are willing and able to handle the task, and will be able to for the duration of the trust – if a trust for a child might last 20+ years, do not name someone who is already in their 70s as the trustee.

10. Not Giving Enough Away Sooner or to Charity

Gifts of things or experiences to your loved ones (to support their education, or travel for instance) while you are alive often have a much bigger impact on the recipients than lump sums of cash when you pass away (See Mark's blog post on Family Vacations. Meaningful gifts to mark milestones like graduation often get remembered much longer than cash inheritances. See Mark's blog post on Family Vacations for how meaningful and fulfilling a family vacation can be.

Even modest gifts to charity can have a big impact on the intended charity. Gifts to charity teach your values to your family. Also, a gift to a charity can create a legacy that is shared among your survivors giving them a common bond and remembrance of you that the same amount of cash, divided among them as inheritance, can never have. Lastly, there are tax benefits for gifts to charity.

Estate law is complex because life is complex. There are often many options, and choosing the options that are best for you and your family depends on your unique circumstances. We strongly recommend that you get advice from an expert in the field who can help you weigh the options, choose a desired outcome, and get there efficiently.

Neil Milton is an experienced estates lawyer who advises estate trustees (executors) and beneficiaries on all aspects of probate, guardianship, and estate administration, and helps resolve estate-related disputes. Miltons Estates Law has offices serves clients across Ontario from offices in Ottawa and Toronto, and provides a wealth of free information and eBooks on its website Feel free to contact Neil directly at or 1.866-297-1179 ext 224

Please note that this post is based on Ontario law. If you live outside of Ontario, it is strongly recommended that you consult with an estates lawyer licensed to practice in your province.

The above blog post is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. Readers are advised to seek specific legal advice regarding any specific legal issues.

This site provides general information on various tax issues and other matters. The information is not intended to constitute professional advice and may not be appropriate for a specific individual or fact situation. It is written by the author solely in their personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which they are affiliated. It is not intended to constitute professional advice, and neither the author nor the firm with which the author is associated shall accept any liability in respect of any reliance on the information contained herein. Readers should always consult with their professional advisors in respect of their particular situation.


  1. This is an excellent article. It would be helpful if you would enhance it by explaining the tax consequences and to who the consequences would apply in you points 3 and 4 above.t

    1. Hi Tall

      In #3 the consequences would be to the parent. If they transfer stock or real estate with an inherent gain, they could be deemed to have sold half of the asset even though all they did was move it to a joint account.

      For #4 the parent would only have 1/2 of the principal residence exemption and thus make half of the future appreciation taxable, instead of tax free.