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Estate planning for the single doctor: Do you still need a will?

Mature woman with glasses, smiling while looking at a document in her kitchen

If you don’t have a spouse or partner or kids, you might think you don’t need a will — but the people and causes you care about will benefit greatly by you putting proper estate-planning in place.

Physicians may hesitate to prepare a will for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a look at one physician’s situation, the reasons she hasn’t yet prepared a will, and what will happen if she dies without a valid will in place.

Case Study: Melissa, age 51

Melissa, a single cardiologist with an incorporated medical practice, has never married or had children. Both of her parents have died. She has one sibling, a sister living overseas.

Over the last two decades, Melissa has been busy building her practice. Before the pandemic, she travelled regularly, including to conferences where she often delivered presentations. She also teaches part-time at her local university.

Melissa is generally healthy, although she was recently diagnosed with osteoarthritis, and is working with her physician to manage it.

Melissa’s net worth is about $2.5 million, spread between the value of her condo, investments in her medical professional corporation, and investments in her registered retirement savings plan and tax-free savings account. Based on her relatively modest lifestyle, especially since the pandemic has curtailed her travelling, she isn’t worried about having enough savings for retirement.

Understanding Melissa’s estate-planning hesitation

With her physician’s suggestions to maintain her health as she grows older, Melissa has been thinking more about her own ageing process. But she still doesn’t feel there’s a compelling reason to prepare a will yet. She has never thought about the possibility of leaving a financial legacy. Instead, her financial planning has focused on whether she will have enough to meet her own needs in retirement (although she has no plans to stop working anytime soon).

However, there’s another underlying reason that Melissa hasn’t taken the time to prepare a will: when Melissa was growing up, both money and death were considered inappropriate topics by her family and were never discussed openly.

Coupled with the fact that she doesn’t have a spouse or partner or dependants to prompt her to prepare an estate plan, Melissa’s inherited beliefs about steering clear of discussing or focusing on finances or death mean that she has not taken action to prepare for the end of her own life.

What happens if Melissa dies without a will?

As an incorporated physician with significant financial assets, Melissa’s estate is not necessarily straightforward. She also doesn’t have any family members nearby who could step in and take over administering her estate.

Dying without a will is known as dying intestate. Your estate will be distributed following the legislation in your province and not necessarily in accordance with your wishes. The administration of your estate will be delayed until someone is granted the authority by a court to deal with your assets. If the application is contested, it will cost your estate more money than the cost of preparing a will.  

If you have a will, your intentions for your property and funerary requests are set out, and an executor1 (also called an estate trustee) is named to carry out your final wishes and administer your estate following the terms of your will. You should always speak to the person you plan to nominate as your executor. However, a named executor, even one that has agreed to take on the role, can choose not to act when the time comes, so it’s wise to consider including an alternate choice.

Here’s what would happen if Melissa were to die intestate in Ontario:

Administering Melissa’s estate

  • Administering Melissa’s estate will involve making funeral arrangements, distributing her assets following the intestacy rules, and carrying out other estate administration functions. These include preparing and filing her final tax returns, applying for her Canada Pension Plan death benefit, winding up her medical professional corporation and closing down her medical practice.
  • As Melissa does not have a will appointing an executor, someone will have to apply to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to be appointed as estate trustee without a will annexed for Melissa’s estate.  
  • If no one steps forward to act as estate trustee, the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee may act as estate trustee of last resort.

Distributing Melissa’s assets

  • Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act sets out how Melissa’s assets will be distributed.
  • In Melissa’s case, her sister would receive Melissa’s assets. If her sister predeceased Melissa, her sister’s children would inherit Melissa’s estate.

An alternate plan for Melissa

In an intestacy situation, the estate administration of Melissa’s estate will take longer, and her funeral arrangements may be stalled and may not be what she would have chosen for herself. Regardless of who steps up to act, her estate trustee will be bound by the rules of succession set out in provincial succession legislation.

Although Melissa may feel a will is unnecessary, this could be partly due to the fact that she has no relatives close by who could administer her estate. However, she doesn’t need to name a family member as executor in her will. Any trusted individual, or even a corporate executor, may be appointed. For example, MD Private Trust Company provides professional executor services, including co-executor services.

Dying intestate means that Melissa loses the opportunity to direct the distribution of her assets. If Melissa wants to make charitable bequests to her medical school or specialty program, gift to a friend or to another cause close to her heart, she will need a will; this would not be possible if she were to die intestate.

Moving forward with an estate plan for Melissa

There are many reasons why a single physician like Melissa may not have considered what will happen to their assets when they die, but there are compelling reasons to prepare an estate plan, including a will.

The process of estate planning extends beyond the preparation of a will. It also allows a physician to plan for the possibility that they may at some point lose decision-making capacity. This is done by putting power of attorney2 documents in place.

Addressing these additional elements of estate planning are especially important for Melissa, as she has no family members living nearby who could step in to make decisions about her health care or finances if she loses the ability to act independently.

No matter the reason you haven’t acted to put a will in place, your MD Advisor* is available to help navigate the process and manage the steps for planning your estate, including preparing your will.


* MD Advisor refers to an MD Management Limited Financial Consultant or Investment Advisor (in Quebec), or an MD Private Investment Counsel Portfolio Manager.

Estate and trust services are offered through MD Private Trust Company.

1 An “executor” is called a “liquidator” in the province of Quebec and an “estate trustee” in the province of Ontario. In the province of Quebec, notarial wills do not require probate, whereas the majority of other wills do require probate and are subject to a fixed application fee. All references to probate and probate tax in this document should be read accordingly.

2 In Canada, a power of attorney can be called a “continuing power of attorney,” “enduring power of attorney” or “protection mandate,” depending on the jurisdiction and the terms contained in the document. A power of attorney for personal care can be called a “representation agreement,” “personal directive,” “enduring power of attorney appointing a personal attorney,” “health care directive,” “advance health care directive” or “protection mandate,” depending on the jurisdiction.

In the province of Quebec, a “power of attorney” is called a “procuration” or a “mandate” and a “continuing power of attorney” is called a “protection mandate.”

The above information should not be construed as offering specific financial, investment, foreign or domestic taxation, legal, accounting or similar professional advice, nor is it intended to replace the advice of independent tax, accounting or legal professionals.