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What happens when a family member dies and doesn't leave a will? It's not pleasant as one woman recounts. It's a frustrating exercise that underscores why everyone should have a legal will.

In April of 2017, my family got a call we never expected. My father’s youngest brother had died suddenly in his home. My uncle Peter was a single man without a wife or children, so it fell upon my family to take care of his estate. While this is never a pleasant task for any family, our experience was made several times more difficult and stressful due to the fact that we were unable to find his will.

He was a former member of the Canadian Navy, based in Halifax. Upon receiving the news my parents flew out to Nova Scotia from our family home in Ontario to take care of everything.

At least, that was the plan.

Since he had served in the navy, we all assumed Peter had a will. Despite hours of searching, there wasn’t one to be found. Instead of spending the time in Halifax to clear out his apartment and to distribute/sell his belongings, my parents were trying to find Peter’s will. After a week of searching, they gave up, put Peter’s stuff in storage and flew home. They were still determined to look for a will from afar.

Over the next two months, we did everything we could to find one, if a will even existed at all. We contacted the Canadian military in hopes they might still have one on file. Though it would have been decades old, it would have given us some understanding of his last wishes.

No luck.

We reached out to every bank and lawyer office we could find in the Halifax area.

Again, no luck.

We went through boxes and boxes of my uncle’s papers that my parents had brought home. Perhaps somewhere in that pile, we’d find a will or perhaps a clue about whether he had created one and with whom. We came up empty.

Of course, there are methods in place to deal with this type of situation. In the end, we had to turn his estate over to the province of Nova Scotia to finalize. His belongings (mostly camping and fishing gear) were auctioned off. After paying for his funeral and services provided by the province, the money left over from his estate was then divided evenly between my uncle’s three siblings.

While it may seem like it all worked out in the end, the process was slow and painful for my family. To start with, the search for a will and trying to figure out what to do while we were grieving added greatly to our stress.

There was also a question of what to do with his remains. As a former member of the Canadian navy, he had the right to be buried at sea. As a younger man, this is what he said he wanted but he had been retired for several years. Was this still his wish? We weren’t sure. Did he really want to go to sea for all eternity? Would he want his remains to be brought back to his hometown in Ontario? Or perhaps stay in Halifax? We had no way of knowing without a will. The uncertainty around this important decision weighed heavily on our family.

Having everything taken care of by the province of Nova Scotia instead of his family made everything feel incredibly impersonal. We were his flesh and blood. Decisions should have been ours to make for him. The entire process to settle his affairs took two years and added to our grief. Regular emails and notifications from the public trustee taking care of his estate, spread over 24 months, served as a constant reminder that, despite our efforts, we weren’t actually sure that his wishes were being followed.

The experience was not a good one, but it did open our eyes to the importance of having a will and notifying loved ones of its location. The experience with my uncle inspired me to talk with my parents about their wishes for their remains when they pass. My brother and I, both in our late 20s at the time, had a similar conversation between ourselves. After all, you never know.

While these discussions are never fun to have, my family’s experience shows that we absolutely need to have them. Having a will doesn’t just guarantee your final wishes will be followed, but it also provides a huge sense of comfort for the family and loved ones you leave behind. Now that you can make a legal will online affordably from home with Willful, there’s really no excuse not to have one.

Please protect yourself and your family. Create a will.



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