Edmonton

Pandemic has prompted interest in wills, Edmonton estate lawyers say

"People are having to face their mortality more than they ever have before," a partner in a city law firm said.

Many provinces, including Alberta, still temporarily allowing remote signing

Edmonton lawyers say a wave of interest in wills and estate planning has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. (NotarYES / Shutterstock)

Estate lawyers in Edmonton say the COVID-19 pandemic has motivated more people to create or update their wills.

The Edmonton Community Foundation's annual Wills Week kicked off on Monday and volunteer estate lawyers have been hosting free presentations every day this week on topics like choosing executors and accommodating blended families.

Noel Xavier, the community foundation's director of donor services,  said registrations are up for these sessions, which are being offered remotely this year.

As well, more Edmontonians are calling to inquire about including gifts to the foundation in their wills, Xavier said.

Pandemic-related quarantine measures initially made it more difficult to arrange end-of-life plans.

Lawyers started meeting with clients in parking lots and garages so documents could be signed and exchanged more safely through car windows.

"I joke that I've become 'the Lincoln Lawyer,'" said Mike Simons, a partner with McCuaig Desrochers in Edmonton.

"I'm sure there are security cameras in several rec centre parking lots that wonder why my van has been there multiple times."

Andrew Cao, a partner at KBL Law who specializes in real estate and wills and estates, said the biggest wave of interest came in March and April.

Having worked as a mobile lawyer for the past eight years, Cao was used to driving hundreds of kilometres around Edmonton on a given day, so the pandemic has not change his job as much.

"I'm doing exactly what I was doing before, just wearing a mask now," he said.

Provinces have since introduced emergency rules to allow remote will signing.

In Alberta, Bill 24 amended the Wills and Succession Act to temporarily allow for remote signing and witnessing. 

Former justice minister Doug Schweitzer issued a ministerial order in July extending the temporary period to Aug. 15, 2022.

Lawyers handling more disputes

Technology has made some parts of the process easier in recent months, but lawyers say more disputes are arising as people re-evaluate their plans and priorities during the pandemic.

"People are having to face their mortality more than they ever have before and with that comes a lot of disagreements and a lot of hurt feelings," Simons said.

"With COVID, there's a lot less communication, a lot more silence and a lot more suspicion."

Cao said he finds meeting with clients in person is easier and preferable in almost every case.

Relying on virtual meetings can sometimes mean missing cues that would be easier to pick up on in person, said Allison Barkwell, a partner with Barkwell Brown Estate and Tax Lawyers in Edmonton.

And wills aren't the only documents people are disagreeing about.

During the pandemic, Barkwell said more people have been asking about enduring power of attorney agreements and personal directives.

Recently, she handled an argument between children who could not agree on where their aging father with dementia should live.

Some of the siblings wanted to put him in a long-term care facility, where he would receive more care than he was receiving at home.

"The other children were completely opposed to the point where they were prepared to make a court application to have the other siblings removed as agents under the personal directive," Barkwell said.

Why update or write a will at all?

Simons said it's a good idea to update a will every three to five years, or after a life event such as a birth, death or cross-country move.

Young people may not think they need wills, but Barkwell said every adult should have one.

"It just relieves everyone of that burden, of not knowing who's in charge and what to do," Simons said.

He said the default rules, which kick in if you die without a will, work "pretty well" for a lot of people, but less well for people who have blended families, second or third marriages or children with disabilities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeleine Cummings joined CBC Edmonton in 2018. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca

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