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New British Columbia wills law to come into force March 31, 2014

In April 2013, the Wills, Estates and Succession Act ("WESA"), a significant piece of legislation that aims to change many existing laws on the books regarding succession and the passage of an estate through a Last Will, was reviewed by the British Columbia government and slated to go into effect in March of 2014, according to the Vancouver Sun. The legislation has been postponed from coming into force for the past three years running, reportedly to give individuals and attorneys a chance to understand the full legal implications of the changes before they are implemented.

The changes largely center on intestacy, or dying without a will, common tragedies and survivorship issues. Several other important changes will also be made regarding gifts prior to the passage of the estate, general definitions, legal ages and benefit plans, among others.

Because the goal of WESA is to consolidate estate law into a single set of codified rules, it effectively repeals the Probate Recognition Act, the Wills Act and the Wills Variation Act, the Estate Administration Act and some parts of the Survivorship and the Presumption of Death Act.

How WESA affects estate holders

First and perhaps most importantly, the Act affects the loved ones of those who die without a Will. Currently, the belongings of the intestate deceased are distributed equally among all children and spouse of the deceased with a small $65,000 "preferential share" going to the surviving spouse. That preferential share will be increased to $300,000 if all of the children are related to the surviving spouse and $150,000 if they are not.

WESA will change laws involving the joint deaths of partners in a shared incident and it is unknown which partner died first. Currently, the younger partner is presumed to have outlived the oldest. What this means is that if an intestate husband and wife die in an accident and the wife is younger, then the joint estate will pass to the wife's family, preventing the husband's family from receiving any share in the joint property. According to the Peachland News, the new law will assure that jointly held property will be split evenly between families in the event of common accidents.

The Act will change several important definitions and age requirements. The minimum legal age for making a Will is currently 19 years old. It will be changed to 16 years of age. The legal definition of "spouse" for estate succession will include couples who have cohabited in a "marriage-like relationship" for at least two years, according to the text of the bill. Marriage will no longer revoke current Wills, which means that married couples should take more precautions to update their wills once they tie the knot.

Other minor changes include the passage of gifts to people who die within five days of the deceased. These people are presumed to have predeceased the Will-maker, and their gift will not go to their families. Life Insurance plans and RRSP benefits will no longer be deemed as part of the estate, thus preventing insurance claims. Gifts to children during the lifetime of the deceased will no longer be considered as "advances" on their inheritance as they currently are.

How to prepare for the coming changes

These changes to probate law are complex and involve forethought and planning. The most important thing is to keep an up-to-date will. While the changes will not be implemented until 2014, it is important to understand implications in advance. Consult with an estate lawyer to see how they will affect your estate planning going forward.

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