Being of sound mind: it’s time to update your will

 by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

I feel like I should put a warning alongside this post, because it’s about something we don’t want to talk or even think about. We live in a death-denying society. I know this, because I spent many years working in hospice palliative care. For example, even a woman being admitted to our 17-bed in-patient unit one day seemed shocked by the brochures in her room. She told us that the words ‘end-of-life care’ on the brochure cover should be immediately removed, because those words meant the dreaded D-word that she’d been denying.   .      . 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the D-word lately, because of the recent sudden death of my ex-husband.

Directly because of this experience, I decided to update my own will. I don’t want my children to ever experience again what I’m watching them go through right now.

So I’ve added additional information to my will to help my executor and my family have an easier time getting through it all, from detailed contacts to specific pension info and where I store my passwords – anything I could add to help reduce their stress someday.

After this update, I’ll start on writing my own obituary for them. (Okay, kids, you can edit that one if you like – but my draft may help to limit those “What year did _____ happen?” moments for you).

Making a will is the most considerate gift you will ever give to your family, unless for some reason you prefer the government to decide who gets what if you fail to make a will.

Based on results, lots of us apparently do prefer that unattractive option. A 2018 Angus Reid Institute survey found that over half of Canadians do not have a will prepared, while only one-third have a will that is up-to-date. You can tell when your will is out-of-date, by the way, if your will still names the proposed legal guardians of your pre-schoolers – who by now are adults.

These realities, as Winnipeg lawyer Lillian MacKenzie told a CTV interviewer, could leave your family in a bind:

“I think people don’t like dealing with their mortality. But dying without an updated will means that your property will be distributed based on a government-mandated formula, and that could mean that important people in your life would be left with nothing.”

Even more troubling, that survey reported that women are far less likely than men to have a will in place, and nearly twice as likely to blame the legal costs of preparing a will as the main reason that they don’t.

But where I live (and in many other places), you don’t need a lawyer to prepare a straightforward, legally valid will  – unless you have a huge estate or complicated bequests.

Even writing your final wishes on a paper napkin represents a valid will if you sign it in front of two witnesses who then add their own signatures to the same napkin. In fact, in March of this year, a will written by hand on a McDonald’s napkin was declared legally valid by a Canadian judge (Gust v. Langan, 2020) – even though one of the children of the deceased contested the napkin will because her Dad had misspelled her name.

A will is a private document, but you can share copies of it as widely as you wish, whenever you wish. The dramatic “reading of the will” scene in front of a hushed family that we watch in old movies apparently happens only rarely anymore.

Where I live, the provincial Vital Statistics Agency maintains the Wills Registry in British Columbia. I can officially register my will either online or by mailing it to them along with my $17 cheque (a fee that has not increased in several years, I just noticed).

I don’t need to send that office a copy of my will. I just let them know that I have one, as well as the location where that will can be found after my death.

But even if I don’t register with the Vital Statistics office, my will is still valid as long as my family and/or executor know where to find a copy someday. 

Here’s an important reminder:  if nobody can find the will, it’s exactly the same as having NO WILL, as many people unfortunately learn to their great dismay when they find out that the _________ (fill in the blank) that has always been “promised” to them isn’t ever coming to them after all BECAUSE THERE IS NO WRITTEN EVIDENCE OF THAT PROMISE.

So if you have always promised that a certain person will one day inherit the _________ (fill in the blank) after you die, then for God’s sake, write your instructions down on a paper napkin (or even better, on an actual will form you can order online or at any office supply store) and get two people to date and witness your signature.

That’s why I’m also giving each of my grown children, as my two main beneficiaries, a copy of that updated will. There will be no surprises in my very straightforward and modest estate.

If you haven’t named an executor yet, please do that today, too.  That’s the person whose important role will be to make sure that your wishes are followed as outlined in your will. Anybody can be named an executor, but if possible, ask somebody you trust to do this job who will not be left emotionally distraught by the news of your death. Then just to be on the safe side, give that person a copy of your new will (and any future updated wills) long before you die.

Those who refuse to do any of this will preparation (because nobody likes thinking or talking about death, blahblahblah. . . ) are essentially forcing their own family members to do the important work later that they can’t be bothered doing right now.

Another example of doing the right thing long before you need to  is called Advance Care Planning. Putting this plan in writing  allows you to have a say in the health care treatments or procedures that you do or don’t want to receive if you’re too sick to speak for yourself one day. 

For any person living with a chronic and progressive illness like heart disease, this kind of thinking ahead is as or even more important to your family than making a will.  More on this topic in next Sunday’s blog. . .

Preparing both a will and an Advance Care Plan represents a wealth of personal choices that only you get to make. If you’re a heart patient, make a decision today to prepare both for the sake of those you care about.

Take care, and stay safe. . .

Q:  What motivated you to make your own will?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about how marriage can affect our cardiac health in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can save 30% off the book’s cover price if you order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN). Or ask for it at your local library, your favourite independent bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon.

See also:

-Deep thoughts about death and heart disease

The dilemma of the death certificate

The myth of the heart disease cure

Denial and its deadly role in surviving a heart attack

14 thoughts on “Being of sound mind: it’s time to update your will

  1. NOTE FROM CAROLYN: This comment has been removed because it was attempting to sell you a miracle cure which, if it were even remotely credible, would have already been patented by the drug industry and prescribed by doctors… For more info on how to get your comment deleted, please read my disclaimer page.


  2. Oh Carolyn, I could go on and on about this topic. Did you know that Canadians are more likely to carry a photo of their dog in their wallet than they are to have a valid Will?

    I worked in what’s called planned or legacy giving before retirement. I dealt with donations that kind people made to my employer, a non-profit organization, through their Wills. Part of that work involved helping donors plan those gifts while they were living. We worked with their legal and financial advisors to ensure we eventually did exactly what the donor wanted us to do with their donation. Then when the donor passed away, we dealt with the executors, lawyers, family, etc. Having seen some gong shows, I can confirm that your information is spot on. We used to say “pew” – Put Everything in Writing!

    I would add that if someone wants to make a donation to charity through their Will, contact that charity and ask for guidance. There’s usually someone there who can help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Deborah! I suspect that Canadians carry dog pix in their wallet because dogs are fun to talk about. Wills = not so much! That’s a very catchy statistic that I intend to steal whenever this conversation comes up…

      I spent my entire career in public relations (in corporate, government and not-for-profit sectors) so worked a lot with my fundraising colleagues, thus my experience with donations to charity was also in that latter area – on the receiving end, not so much the donating end.

      We might receive, for example, what we called a “restricted gift” from a person who donated a generous amount to be used only for something very specific – let’s say another big statue for a garden already full of statues. What often happened however was that no matter how much money was in that Garden Statue Fund, we could not legally touch it for any non-statue expenditures in keeping with the donor’s specific wishes – even for items far more urgently needed.

      Hence the wisdom of your suggestion to contact the charity and ask for guidance!

      For my updated will, I found some general wording I liked around the bequests I made to four local non-profits: “….pay the sum of $_____ to be used in the area of greatest need.”

      Thank you Deborah for this important advice. Take care, stay safe… ♥


  3. Wow Carolyn, thank you so much for this post.

    We just celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday yesterday and I woke up this morning with the nagging thought, once again, that we have no will in place after all these years and that we need to do that very soon.

    Not so much a matter of denying as just procrastinating in the midst of all the other things that need to be done in life. And we also need to do the other paperwork you mentioned in your post. I even want my children (ages 30s and 20s) to inform us of end-of-life preferences and hope to do a roundtable discussion of this someday soon.

    For a long time a will didn’t seem so important because we never had much to leave our kids, but 7 years ago we were able to buy a beautiful piece of property and a house. You would think in those 7 years we would have done our wills by now!

    Thank you again for this important reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for weighing in here, Meghan – that 2018 survey I mentioned also found that “I don’t have that much to leave behind” is a very common reason given for not preparing a will. But everybody has “stuff” – and sometimes that stuff somehow expands to include a property and a house!

      Good luck with those wills – take care, stay safe… ♥


  4. Carolyn, Thanks for another excellent article about an important part of life. And yes, I guess my Will is outdated because I have grandchildren now & my will mentions who is going to look after my children who are now in their 40s!

    Yes, I think it’s time to get that job done…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Patti – I’m guessing that your kids no longer need a legal guardian… 🙂

      That’s really common – we write a will, and then never think of it again because “we’ve already got a will…” and then life just gets in the way.

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


  5. I first made a will when my oldest child was born, and then updated it after my cardiac event. Your article has made me realize that was 9 years ago, time to look at it again and update if necessary.

    I also created a “When I Die” folder, which is red and sits on my desk. All of my children know where it is and it contains all the information they will need to settle my affairs when I am gone.

    That will and that folder are acts of love for those that stay behind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this, Dr. Anne – especially your red “When I Die” folder. I think I’ll follow your lead – and not only start my own red folder, but mention it specifically in my will updates.

      Doesn’t nine years fly by fast?!?! Wow.

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


  6. You can’t be more correct about wills, Carolyn. It is a confusing time after the loss of your ex, but you have found out how to make a “win” from it.

    Some additional thoughts from the recent (February) loss of my mother:

    Mom’s will hadn’t been changed since Dad passed away (12 years apart). Her will still stated that Dad was her beneficiary and if he predeceased her, then the children were named. So we had to scramble around to find a copy of Dad’s death certificate. It was a nice gesture to make all 3 children the Executor, but in practical terms it didn’t make sense as we are scattered across the country. In the end, I formally withdrew from being a executor to make things easier.

    I also now see the benefit of Life Insurance as Mom’s funds were immediately frozen but there were lots of expenses. So I recommend a small policy (it is not frozen) to reduce the additional stress.

    It is a stressful time for the survivors so knowing we were following mom’s wishes made it a little less stressful.

    Take care,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this useful perspective, Peter. I’m thinking that documents like family death certificates should be filed safely away in an accessible spot – for years – because you never know when they may be needed again. Interesting point about the life insurance – my children have been told that it will be several months (and realistically, far longer) until my ex’s estate is probated.

      I just looked this up: beneficiaries typically inherit life insurance proceeds up to 60 days following a claim (i.e. once the death certificate satisfies the insurance company’s requirements) so that’s a far shorter wait than what the will proceeds would provide. I also learned that life insurance claims for a death caused by pre-existing health conditions are typically NOT approved for payment – which eliminates this option for any heart patients who end up dying of heart disease. Better to get hit by a large bus… 😉

      More things to consider while updating my own will…

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s