When circumstances make it difficult to draw up a conventional will, a hand-written will is an option for most Canadians. It's called a "holographic will," and it's perfectly legal as long as it meets certain basic requirements. A hand-written will isn't usually the best option, but any written will is better than no will at all.
What Is a Holograph Will?
A holograph will is a hand-written document, in which you explain how you would like your estate to be settled. The entire will must be written in your own hand; it won't count if you use a typed or pre-printed will and simply fill in the blanks. You must also sign the document in your own hand.
There are no firm requirements about how you phrase your wishes, so don't worry about making it sound legal. In one famous example, a Saskatchewan farmer trapped under his tractor scratched a one-sentence will on its fender. It was upheld in court as a valid holograph will, simultaneously leaving his estate to his wife and earning him a place in Canadian legal lore. A handwritten will is legal in Ontario and most other provinces, with the exception of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the territory of Nunavut.
Reasons to Write a Holograph Will
A hand-written will is most appropriate if you have a simple estate. If you own little beyond the family home and modest RRSPs, pensions or insurance policies, and have a spouse or children surviving you, it may be all you need. If you have no will at all, a holograph will can provide a useful stopgap while you arrange for something more formal. In a worst-case scenario, it can at least outline your wishes, giving the courts a guide to follow.
How to Write One
Legally, the will is valid as long as it's written and signed in your own hand, but you can minimize the risk of misunderstandings and legal challenges by including a few specific phrases and clauses.
- Start by identifying yourself with your full name and place of residence, and stating that it's your last will and testament.
- Make sure to say you're revoking any previous will, if that's applicable.
- Choose one or more adults as executors, to take care of your affairs after you're gone. Be sure to specify that they have the power to settle any debts or costs involved in winding up your estate.
- Spell out what you want done with any property or other assets you own. This is where you can make specific bequests, such as leaving your grandma's sewing basket to a craft-minded child or a signed hockey stick to your sports enthusiast.
- Add a clause about the "residue" of your estate, anything left after the bills are paid and specific bequests have been dealt with. This is a catch-all phrase that covers assets you've forgotten or sums that come in after your death. This can just be a single line, allocating the residue to a surviving spouse, dividing it equally between your children, or whatever other arrangement is appropriate.
- Finish by stating that the signature on the document is yours, and then give the date and specify how many pieces of paper you've used. You don't need to have witnesses, unless any part of the will is not written in your own hand.
Reasons to Not Write One
Though a holographic will can be a useful tool in some circumstances, it's not always the best choice. Saving money on legal fees is at the top of that list. If your estate is simple, the cost of a professionally prepared will is quite modest, and if your estate is complex, your heirs will have to spend on legal fees to resolve any issues arising from an inadequate will. Complicated family situations involving current and former spouses and their children, or ownership of a family business or major assets, usually also call for a professional's input.
Crucial Points to Remember
Keep a few further points in mind. First and foremost, consult your chosen executors to make sure they're willing and able to act on your behalf. Let them know where to find the will, as well as samples of your handwriting that the court can use for comparison. Finally, ask yourself if the will provides for all of your wishes. You might also need to prepare powers of attorney in case you're incapacitated, or a health care directive to clarify whether and how you wish to be treated by medical professionals.