As long time readers know, I’m delighted every so often to hand over the newsletter reigns to my wonderful colleague Sarah Morkin, our Operations Director.  Sarah’s shared some of the wisdom she’s learned from her family over the years.  As you will read below, sometimes tears and laughter can intertwine, and push us to tackle some of the things we all would rather avoid…

“It’s not funny… it’s not funny… don’t you dare laugh!” were the words I silently recited as a burst of laughter tried desperately to escape, only to be halted at the last second and thrust back down by my conscience.

I’m sure that from an onlooker’s perspective, I appeared to be holding back a heavy cough as I stood side by side with my grieving family, overlooking a closed casket. The truth of the matter is that day an eccentric bagpiper had been hired to commemorate the burial service of a family member and we were all in for a surprise!

To this very day, I can’t tell whether the musician was feeling unwell, or whether they were having issues with their instrument… but the songs that bellowed from his chanter were so haphazard I thought it might be a practical joke. As I looked up to validate my curiosity with other family members, I noticed my cousins fidgeting with their hands and feet, each refusing to make eye contact with me… until I got to my Aunt. The moment our eyes locked, I could see her struggle matched my own as her face turned beet red, she let out a hilariously strained snorting sound. In witnessing her distress… my self-control became wildly painful. You couldn’t anticipate a better comedic sketch than this moment unless it was pulled from a Monty Python skit.

The scene ended with one more song, just to tip us all over the edge, followed by family members practically sprinting to their cars. As soon as we closed the car doors, an overwhelming wave of laughter burst like a cannon ball. I could see the SUV parked in front of us shaking (it was my Aunt’s vehicle). That funeral service will forever hold the title of “most memorable” in our family’s lifetime. It sparked an infusion of comfortable conversation about death & legacy within my family, which continues to this day.

When I think back on that moment, although there is sadness, there is such an abundance of joy that it dominates the memory completely. I will always crack a smile when I think about that family member, and I am sure that if she knew this was how she’d live on in my mind… she would have found it amusing too. Who would have guessed that one day her legacy would be eternally bound to an out-of-control bagpiper she’d never met? It just goes to show that life has a way of throwing unexpected curve balls (or in this case… bagpipes) our direction, even after death.

“Will”-ing to change

My partner, Andre, and I know all about curve balls. One such curve was on July 17th, 2017, as I was sitting in a waiting room at Victoria Hospital with Andre, listening to stand-up comedy sketches and waiting for a nurse to call my name. In tense times, laughter is often the best medicine, and that day I intended on keeping my sense of humour primed and ready for anything. We were scheduled for a C-Section at 1:30pm to welcome our twin babies, and I was equally excited as I was nervous.

So much preparation had gone into this moment, and yet, I still had an outstanding list of tasks that needed tackling. But life goes on, no matter if we were entirely ready or not, and that day we were blessed with two healthy little babies. I will never forget the first time I saw Andre come towards me with our twins in his arms, his eyes welled up with tears and was grinning from ear to ear. It was as if time had stopped, just long enough for me to take in the full beauty of what stood before me. From that moment on, any decision I made would be for them, but could inadvertently impact them.

We were discharged and headed home a few days later, and plans we’d set in motion months prior started to morph into our day-to-day routines. All those nights we dedicated to swaddling stuffed animals had become a saving grace to sooth our babies. All the research and workshops we had done in preparation afforded us with a foundation of strength when we were exhausted. But that was only one hurdle and the marathon race had just begun.

Part of that parenting marathon involved drafting a will. We needed a plan that would see us through the things we didn’t want to think about, nor discuss out loud. But it had to be done, despite discomfort and any stigmas on the subject, simply because the cost of not being prepared is something we were not ready to pass off to the ones we loved.

Being willing to be uncomfortable

If a person in Ontario dies without a valid will (a condition known as Intestacy), the Succession Law Reform Act sets out how their estate will be distributed. The government has a set formula for how estates are distributed amongst family in a situation where there is no will in effect. While some situations are straight forward (such as only having a spouse), other situations, including having a spouse and children are “messy”.

Without going into the technical details, the process is a taxing experience for all parties involved, and potentially drawn out over a period of many months to many years. This simply isn’t an option that we are comfortable with.

To get started, we drafted a list of the items we had to address:

1.   What assets do we have?

2.   What debts do we have or anticipate?

3.   What do we value as a family?

Gathering financial statements and putting the big picture together can seem as daunting as filing taxes, but it is an empowering exercise to recognize where you currently stand, because it opens the doors to what options are available to you. No matter what financial circumstances you’re faced with, to know where you are is a powerful position to be in. We never want our children to struggle financially, so we knew we had to make choices in sourcing affordable solutions to support our children in our absence. Whether that be life insurance policies, investments or trust funds, we needed to have a nest egg ready and waiting.

Beyond the financial aspects of our will, however, we want our children to live long, fulfilling lives with strong family relationships as their foundation. Additionally, we hope to instill a great connection with nature & curiosity for learning. It is our life’s goal to demonstrate kindness, generosity and humility. How can this be done if we are not there to guide them? We started curating a list, which evolved into panel of loved ones that would act as guardians over our children. Ultimately, our will is our final message to our children about what is important to us as a family.

We then discussed the places and spaces that have been at the center of our family life, and identified a way to incorporate them into our plan. From the life-saving nature hikes we take routinely at Apps Mill, or the Ontario Conservation Parks that host our family in the summer months. To the YMCA pools where our kids learned how to swim, to the community programs that hosted our kids to meet other little ones, where they could play & learn in a safe space. It was our intention to support those sacred spaces, knowing that they will one day provide for our grandchildren, great grandchildren. I want to ensure that my children and their communities will still have access to the support systems that we had access to during our time.

I turned to www.willpower.ca as a starting point in my research. This website was launched in 2021 as a collaboration between The Canadian Association of Gift Planners (CAGP) and The CAGP Foundation. Willpower is a resource that offers its users free access to legacy calculators, guides and directories of financial planning professionals, legal professionals and charities. Willpower.ca has a section to connect you to legal services across Canada. No matter what province you reside in, you can find relevant information and get connected with local organizations and educated professionals.

Taking a Tour

Ever since that fateful day of awkward bagpiping, I am proud to say that my family has never shied away from discussing the subject of death. In fact, my parents and I have gone into very detailed discussions about their beliefs on the subject and what their final wishes would be. I have a great amount of respect for their choices, and know that when that time comes, I will honour those plans to the best of my ability. I am confident that the relationship with my two younger brothers will grow stronger because we entered into that stage of life understanding of the intended outcome. This is because we were empowered to discuss uncomfortable subjects with openness, respect, and a slightly crass sense of humour.

I was at my parents place last summer when my Dad called me downstairs to go for a walk through his cold cellar. He wanted to show off some of his new LCBO purchases, which turned into an hour’s walk through of all his different whiskies and their intended purpose.

“This one we’ll set aside for your wedding, this one is for Tom’s wedding, and this one I guess we can open for Christmas”. Each bottle had a story, a time and a purpose. As we made our way into the VIP section of the tour, he said “This one I want everyone to drink at my funeral and then you can bury my ashes in the empty bottle”. I smiled and asked if there was anything else I should know about, to which he quickly replied “Yes, I am spending your inheritance on me… so don’t get your hopes up for any payday!”.

We both laughed, I shrugged and Dad grabbed his phone to look up a video he’d shown me countless times before. It was Graham Chapman’s memorial service (former member of Monthy Python) on Youtube, where the rest of the cast of honoured Graham’s memory with some jokes and close out the ceremony singing “Always look on the bright side of life”. In the song there’s a line that says “Just remember that the last laugh is on you” which brought back funny memories of the bagpiper … I looked up at Dad with a smirk and said, “Don’t worry, the music at your funeral will be great!”.

Sincerely,

Sarah

The information provided is accurate to the best of our knowledge as of the date of publication, but rules and interpretations may change.  This information is general in nature, and is intended for informational purposes only.  For specific situations you should consult the appropriate legal, accounting or tax advisor.