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Tax PlanningCommon Estate Planning Mistakes


This article was reviewed by Jay Brecknell, CFP®.

Do you know what the most important things are to consider when planning for your eventual demise? Wills are usually the first thing that people think about when the topic of estate planning comes up, however you may be surprised at how many people don’t have a valid will.

Here are some common estate planning mistakes that you should avoid:

Not having a Power of Attorney

Commonly referred to as a POA, you should definitely have one if you are over 55 years old. This doesn’t mean that your POA has to act for you while you’re still fit and capable, but you need to have it in place and ready in case of incapacity as a result of an unexpected injury or illness. Often a spouse is listed as POA, but consider having someone younger, like an adult child, listed (at least as an alternate) so you won’t need to update the POA if your spouse predeceases you.

Not listing a beneficiary on your accounts

The best way to avoid taxes upon your death is to list your spouse as the beneficiary (sometimes called a successor annuitant) on your registered accounts (e.g. RRSP, RRIF or TFSA) so that the assets will transfer over intact and remain tax-sheltered. You can name beneficiaries other than your spouse too, but the funds won’t remain registered when they transfer, and the full value of the account will be considered taxable income to your estate (excluding TFSA accounts).

Putting adult children on title of your property

A common strategy when trying to avoid probate taxes is to add an adult child(ren) on the title of property before you die. We find that it creates more problems than solutions for most families. What people often don’t realize is now your home is considered an asset of the adult child (they legally own a portion), and if he/she gets divorced, sued, or files for bankruptcy, the property may have to be sold to pay off creditors or to split the proceeds with their former spouse. Is it worth saving a small amount on probate fees (approx. 1.4%) to put your most valuable assets at risk?

Gifting adult children cash before your death

This strategy shares similar concerns as those listed in my previous point. If the funds become co-mingled with joint family accounts, then their spouse can claim partial ownership. Plus, as parents we often want to ensure our children are well taken care of and are not left ‘wanting’, but what if you run out of cash before you die? Do you expect your children to return the favour? What if the cash is long gone? The principle of “put your own oxygen mask on before helping your children” applies here. They can receive the proceeds of your estate once you’re gone – you need to ensure your own needs are taken care of while you’re still alive.

And finally, most important to consider (but often over-looked), is to sit down with your family members and have a conversation about your wishes. It may feel like a difficult conversation, but it will ensure there are no unexpected surprises and help your heirs maintain good relations. And isn’t that what we all want in the end?

Additional Readings: Retirement Planning in Canada: A Complete Guide