10 min read

Lexicon of Estate Planning Terms in Canada

Written by
Willfinity Team

Estate planning, for many, may seem like an intricate and complex subject filled with arcane terms and concepts. Yet, it's an essential aspect of ensuring one's hard-earned assets and legacies are managed and distributed according to one's wishes after their passing. In Canada, the legal landscape surrounding estate planning is designed to provide clarity and protection to both the estate holder and the beneficiaries. This article aims to demystify some of the most commonly used terms in estate planning, providing a comprehensive understanding for the Canadian general public.


In the realm of estate planning, the term "abatement" is encountered when the total value of the estate's liabilities surpasses its assets. Essentially, this means that there isn't enough in the estate to fulfil all the bequests as written in the will. When this happens, certain bequests might be reduced proportionately to ensure all debts and liabilities of the estate are settled. It's crucial to have a well-crafted will and a clear understanding of one's assets and liabilities to avoid such situations.


This term refers to a situation where a specific gift mentioned in a person's will no longer exists by the time of their passing. For instance, if one bequeaths a particular piece of art to a beneficiary, but that art is sold or destroyed before the person's death, the gift "adeems" or fails. The beneficiary will not receive an alternative unless the will specifically provides for one. Canadian courts, however, have occasionally made broader interpretations based on the testator's (the person who made the will) intentions. For example, if a property intended to be gifted has changed form or increased in value, courts may rule in favour of tracing the specific asset's proceeds or new form to ensure the beneficiary's rights are preserved.


When an individual passes away without leaving a will (known as "intestate"), or if the will doesn't specify an executor, or the named executor is unable or unwilling to act, an administrator is appointed. In Canada, the court typically designates the administrator to manage the deceased's estate. Their role is quite similar to an executor; they collect the deceased's assets, pay any debts, and distribute the remaining assets according to the law.


This term refers to an individual or entity (like a charity or trust) that is set to receive assets or benefits from an estate, trust, or insurance policy. Beneficiaries can be named specifically, such as "my daughter, Jane," or more generally, like "all my surviving children." Ensuring beneficiaries are clearly defined is paramount to avoid potential disputes or legal challenges in the future.


A bequest is a gift left in a will, which can be of various types. It can be specific, where a particular item or amount of money is left to a named beneficiary. Alternatively, it can be residuary, where a beneficiary is given a percentage of the "residue" or what remains of an estate after all debts, taxes, and specific bequests are satisfied. Understanding the nature of bequests and ensuring they're articulated precisely in a will can prevent misunderstandings and potential legal complications.


Occasionally, after creating a will, one might wish to make changes or additions without drafting an entirely new document. A codicil serves this purpose. It's a legal document that amends, rather than replaces, a previously executed will. In Canada, like the original will, a codicil must be signed and witnessed properly to be legally valid. However, with the advent of modern technology and evolving legal norms, creating a new will might sometimes be more straightforward than adding multiple codicils. Consulting a legal expert can provide clarity on the best approach.


At its core, the term "estate" refers to the entirety of an individual's property, assets, and liabilities at the time of their death. This includes tangible properties like real estate, cars, and personal belongings, as well as intangible assets like bank accounts, stocks, and intellectual property rights. The estate is the subject of the will and is what gets distributed to beneficiaries after settling debts and taxes.


An executor is a person or institution appointed by the testator to carry out the terms of their will. This role is one of great responsibility, as the executor is entrusted with gathering the estate's assets, paying off its liabilities, and distributing the remaining assets to the designated beneficiaries. In Canada, the executor also has a fiduciary duty, meaning they must act in the best interest of the estate and its beneficiaries, ensuring transparency, diligence, and utmost good faith.


Especially important for parents with minor children, a guardian is someone nominated in a will to take care of the testator's children should both parents pass away before the children reach adulthood. In Canada, while the appointment of a guardian in a will expresses the testator's wishes, a court ultimately determines guardianship, keeping the best interests of the child at the forefront.


If an individual passes away without having a valid will in place, they are said to have died "intestate." When this happens in Canada, provincial laws dictate how the estate will be divided and distributed. Typically, the distribution prioritises spouses and children, but if none exist, then other relatives may be considered. Dying intestate can sometimes lead to unexpected and undesirable outcomes, which underscores the importance of having a well-drafted will in place.

Power of Attorney

This legal document allows an individual, known as the "principal," to appoint another person, the "attorney," to act on their behalf in specified matters, which can include financial transactions, health decisions, or other personal affairs. There are different types of powers of attorney in Canada, each serving a specific purpose, from managing everyday affairs when one is out of the country to making decisions when one is medically incapacitated.


This is a legal process through which a will is reviewed to determine its authenticity and validity. In Canada, probate involves the court formally approving the will and the appointment of the executor. Once probate is granted, the executor has the legal authority to administer the estate. There are associated fees with probate, which vary from one province to another. It's worth noting that not all assets require probate; for instance, jointly held assets or those with named beneficiaries might bypass this process.


The individual who creates and executes a will is known as the testator. It's paramount for the testator to have the legal capacity to make a will, ensuring they fully understand the implications of the document they're creating. In Canada, the general age at which one can create a valid will is 18, but there are exceptions based on specific circumstances or provinces.


A trust is a legal relationship in which one party, the "trustee," holds property or assets for the benefit of another party, the "beneficiary." Trusts can serve various purposes, from tax planning to providing for minors or individuals with disabilities. There are different types of trusts in Canada, each tailored for specific situations, such as testamentary trusts (created upon the death of the testator) or living trusts (created during the testator's lifetime).


The cornerstone of estate planning, a will is a legal document that dictates how an individual's assets and property will be distributed upon their death. It can also specify guardians for minor children and provide instructions for the payment of debts or taxes. In Canada, for a will to be valid, it generally needs to be in writing, signed by the testator, and witnessed by at least two individuals who aren't beneficiaries.


In the context of estate planning, a witness is an individual who observes the testator signing the will, affirming its authenticity. Witnesses play a crucial role in the validation of a will, ensuring that the testator signed it freely without any undue influence. In Canada, it's essential that witnesses are not beneficiaries of the will, as this could invalidate their bequests.

Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts

These terms denote the flexibility and permanence of trusts. A revocable trust can be altered, amended, or revoked by the settlor (the person who created the trust) during their lifetime. This type of trust offers flexibility but may not provide the same level of protection against creditors or estate taxes as its counterpart. An irrevocable trust, once established, generally cannot be changed or terminated without the permission of the beneficiary. This trust offers more robust protection for assets but sacrifices flexibility.


In estate planning, a gift is a voluntary transfer of property or assets to another without receiving anything or less than full value in return. Gifting can be a strategic way to reduce the size of an estate for tax purposes or to benefit loved ones during the testator's lifetime. In Canada, specific rules govern the tax implications of gifting, especially when it involves capital property.

Joint Tenancy

This is a form of property ownership where two or more individuals own an asset together. The distinctive feature of joint tenancy is the right of survivorship. This means that if one of the joint tenants dies, their interest in the property automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant(s). It's a common method used in estate planning to ensure seamless transfer of assets like real estate or bank accounts upon death.

Life Estate

This is a unique estate planning tool where an individual retains an interest in a property for their lifetime, known as a life tenant. Upon their death, the property then passes to a predetermined individual, known as the remainderman. This arrangement allows the life tenant to use the property during their lifetime but ensures the property will pass to the remainderman without going through probate.

Living Will

Distinct from the traditional will which deals with asset distribution, a living will, also known as an advance directive, outlines an individual's wishes regarding medical treatments in the event they become incapacitated and can't communicate their decisions. In Canada, the specifics and enforceability of a living will vary by province, but it's a valuable tool for clarifying one's desires concerning life-prolonging interventions.


When discussing wills and estate distributions, the "residue" refers to what remains of an estate after all specific bequests, debts, taxes, and administrative expenses have been addressed. Residuary bequests allow testators to allocate this remaining portion to specific beneficiaries, either as a whole or divided into percentages.

Tangible Personal Property Memorandum

This is an ancillary document to a will, detailing the distribution of tangible personal property like jewellery, artwork, or collectibles. While the memorandum may not always be legally binding in every Canadian jurisdiction, it provides a clear record of the testator's wishes and can help prevent disputes among beneficiaries.

Trust Protector

A relatively modern concept in estate planning, a trust protector is an individual or entity appointed to oversee a trustee's actions. Their role might include replacing an ineffective trustee, amending trust terms, or addressing unforeseen circumstances. Though not yet widespread in Canada, the idea of trust protectors is gaining traction as a means to add flexibility and oversight to trust arrangements.

Unified Credit

While more pertinent to U.S. estate law, the concept is worth understanding for Canadians with assets or beneficiaries in the U.S. The unified credit is a provision that allows for a certain amount of assets to be transferred tax-free during life or at death. Canadians should seek specialised advice if they have cross-border estate concerns.


To "vest" means to confer an immediate fixed right of present or future enjoyment. An interest in an estate might vest immediately upon a person's death or might be conditional, vesting only when specific criteria or events occur. Understanding when and how interests vest can be crucial in determining beneficiaries' rights and the timing of asset distributions.

Waiver of Prerogative Rights

In some Canadian jurisdictions, a surviving spouse may have the right to choose between taking what the will provides or claiming a defined share of the deceased's estate, known as the "prerogative right." If the spouse decides to waive this right and accept the provisions of the will, it's referred to as the "waiver of prerogative rights." Such decisions often require careful consideration and legal guidance.

Year's Support

A provision seen in some jurisdictions, the "year's support" is an amount set aside from the estate to support the deceased's dependents, ensuring they have financial means during the period immediately following the death. This provision underscores the importance of providing for one's family, even in the unforeseen event of untimely death.

Zoning Laws

While primarily associated with real estate and land use, zoning laws can have implications for estate planning, especially if the deceased owned properties with specific land-use designations or restrictions. Beneficiaries receiving such properties should be aware of zoning laws to understand their rights and potential uses of the land.

Digital Assets

In the modern era, our online presence and digital assets have become increasingly significant. These can include social media accounts, online banking, cryptocurrency, digital photos, and more. It's vital for testators to provide clear instructions about accessing and handling these assets upon their death, ensuring their digital legacy remains intact and secure.

Estate Freeze

A sophisticated tax planning strategy, an estate freeze "locks in" the current value of an estate for tax purposes, passing any future appreciation on to heirs. This can be an effective way to minimise future tax liabilities, especially in situations where assets are expected to significantly increase in value.

Grantor vs. Settlor

Both these terms refer to the individual who creates a trust. While "grantor" is more commonly used in the United States, "settlor" is the preferred term in Canada. Regardless of the terminology, the role is foundational: this person determines the terms of the trust, which assets to include, and who the beneficiaries will be.

In Terrorem Clause

Also known as a "no-contest" clause, this provision is inserted into wills to deter beneficiaries from challenging the document. If a beneficiary does contest the will and loses, this clause ensures they receive nothing from the estate. While such clauses can be effective deterrents, their enforceability varies across Canadian jurisdictions.

Qualified Terminable Interest Property (QTIP) Trust

While this is a concept more rooted in U.S. estate planning, it's worth noting for Canadians with assets or relations in the States. A QTIP trust allows a grantor to provide for a surviving spouse and also maintain control over how assets are distributed after the spouse's death.

Concluding Thoughts

Navigating the labyrinth of estate planning can be daunting. Yet, with the right knowledge and guidance, it becomes a manageable, even empowering, endeavour. This glossary serves as a foundational tool for Canadians, shedding light on the myriad terms and concepts that populate the world of estate planning.

While this article offers a thorough overview, estate planning is deeply personal and often intricate. Consulting with legal professionals ensures that one's intentions are clearly articulated and legally sound. Remember, a well-crafted estate plan isn't just a legal document; it's a testament to one's legacy, wishes, and the future well-being of loved ones.

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