Features | From Pivot Magazine

The rise of online wills 

How losing a loved one—and nearly his own life—inspired Kevin Oulds to help Canadians plan for the end  

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Portrait of Kevin Oulds, co-founder of 'Willful'Kevin Oulds, co-founder of Willful (Guillaume Simoneau) 

When my uncle died unexpectedly in November 2012, I kept wishing I’d had a more meaningful final conversation with him. At the time, we worked together at a cement plant in Oakville, Ont. The last thing we talked about was the Toronto Maple Leafs.

My uncle left a will, but there were still lots of decisions to make. My aunt, his wife of almost 40 years, asked me to find out what burial arrangements my uncle might have wanted, since she was unsure. When I tried to find out, my grieving family argued about where to bury him, whether he should be cremated and if we should inform estranged relatives. We could have avoided these questions if we’d prepared. But, like many Canadians, my aunt and uncle weren’t comfortable discussing death, so they didn’t.

That was my aha moment. Conversations about death are hard, especially with loved ones. I thought, ‘What if there was a digital space where we could leave a trail of instructions and information for our loved ones after we pass away?’

It took two more brushes with death for me to act on that idea. One year after my uncle died, I woke up at 4 a.m. with extreme pain in my ankle. At the hospital, doctors ruled out flesh-eating disease but had no idea what it could be—my ankle looked normal. At night, alone with my thoughts, I asked, ‘What would happen if I died right now?’ My parents and girlfriend (now wife), Erin Bury, would have to clean up another huge mess. Thankfully, the doctors diagnosed it as a septic arthritic infection, and I was able to recover.

I cheated death again a few years later. It was a sunny day, around -20 C, and I was driving north to Barrie, Ont., with a colleague. All of a sudden, I drove into a whiteout and lost all visibility. The next thing I knew, we were the 10th car in a 10-car pileup. Luckily, we were unhurt. I heard screams, though, so I got out of the vehicle and ran around the wreckage until I found a man about my age, lying on the ground missing the bottom half of his leg. I grabbed my colleague’s belt and used it as a tourniquet. He told me, ‘Tell my wife I love her and tell my son to be a good boy.’ I didn’t have to. He survived, and I later visited him—and his family—in the hospital. To this day, I never leave the house without a belt.

When I got home that day, I told Erin that the universe was clearly telling me something. In February 2016, I launched a website called Final Blueprint. It was a non-legally binding way for users to plan final arrangements and leave last messages or words of advice. But I quickly realized that it was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.

So, I began researching wills and realized that about half of Canadian adults—and up to 90 per cent of millennials—don’t have a will. That’s because estate planning can cost thousands of dollars and take weeks to finalize with a lawyer.

I decided to make the process easier. In October 2017, I launched an online platform, Willful, where you can get a will for as little as $99. It’s a self-guided, user-friendly process, similar to TurboTax. You answer questions—e.g., who would be your children’s guardian, would you leave anything to charity—and the platform creates a legally binding document. You can make unlimited changes for free.

Erin, who has spent more than 10 years in Toronto’s tech community, was our first investor and advisor, and I eventually convinced her to become Willful’s CEO. Together, we’ve built the business into something bigger than I’d ever imagined. To date, we have sold more than 6,000 documents in Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan, and we plan to be available across Canada by this fall. 

We want to make a difference for Canadians. We hope to educate them and empower them to plan for the future well-being of their family—not scare them into doing it. Most of all, I want to make sure no family has to go through what ours did.”

—As told to Barbara Balfour

Where there's a will

When to get an accountant involved in end-of-life planning

Online wills are quick and convenient, but they may not be the right fit for everyone. “Anyone who is self-employed, owns a business or has complex investments should venture beyond an online service to seek the advice of an accountant,” says Rosa Maria Iuliano, a tax partner at Baker Tilly Ottawa LLP. People with assets in multiple provinces should get legal and accounting advice in each of those jurisdictions, she adds. “The more assets you have, the more complicated your estate planning can be.”

Estate lawyers may not fully understand the tax implications of their client’s end-of-life options, says Adam Plank, a Coquitlam, B.C.-based partner at Rise CPA. Professional accountants add value to the estate-planning process by asking questions people may not have contemplated before, such as: what happens to their funds if they become incapacitated, their spouse remarries or their children get divorced? “CPAs can have those discussions with the client,” Plank says. “They can work with the lawyers to ensure wills are drafted in a way that satisfies the tax rules, while ensuring the assets get to where the client wants them to go.”

CPAs can advise clients on other factors that might impact their goals. If a client holds shares, for example, the shareholder agreement may require those shares to be repurchased rather than passed on to a beneficiary directly. Divvying up retirement funds among children can require extra attention, too. “A client may name one of their kids as a designated beneficiary on an RRSP or RRIF but want all their children to share in that asset,” says Plank. “Without proper provisions in the will, it is possible for the one child to get all the value while leaving the tax burden to the estate.” —Barbara Balfour