skip to main content

Heed the Advice of our Elders and Make a Will!

In honour of International Women’s Day, looking back at the still relevant wisdom of one of Canada’s early female lawyers

This weekend we celebrate International Women's Day (“IWD”), which is annually held on March 8th as a global day to celebrate women’s historical and national achievement. IWD began in the early 1900s, at a time when discourse about gender equality and women’s oppression was beginning to gain traction, alongside burgeoning population growth and ongoing industrialization and urbanization. 

Last week, I had the privilege of attending an event at Osgoode Hall where an Ontario Heritage Trust plaque honouring the work of the Women's Law Association of Ontario unveiled. The WLAO, a not for profit organization that was originally founded to encourage the interchange of ideas and cooperation between women with legal training, celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2019. It was inspiring to hear about the rich history of the WLAO and the female lawyer trailblazers who were instrumental in establishing the organization, but also developing the legal profession.

One such woman was my late grandmother, Mary Frawley Lamont, who graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1937 and who then served as president of the WLAO from 1945 – 1947. Although I had always known that Mary practiced law, I had not had an opportunity to see or hear about her work in any tangible way until, at last week’s event, my aunt gave me and the WLAO copies of a public lecture that Mary delivered on October 31, 1945 before the Local Council of Women on the topic of wills and intestacies. 

The lecture provides a detailed history of the development of this area of the law, touching on roots that date back to the earliest known testament of an Egyptian priest more than 4,500 years prior, and providing an overview of the current (as of 1945) status of the law. Aside from being a great primer on how and why estates and intestacy laws have developed as they have, Mary’s lecture included a call to arms to her contemporaries (of both genders, but especially women) to take advantage of the opportunities available to them as a result of the evolution of both the law and societal/gender roles and norms to ensure their wishes with respect to their property are properly documented by simply making a will:

…There is no reason the thought of will-making should evoke unpleasant ideas in the mind of anyone. Today, in every aspect of living, we try to plan our lives to the best possible advantage. We utilize our training, whether as homemakers, business women or professional women, to obtain the maximum good and pleasure from living. If we plan a trip, the purchase of a new house, the decoration of the one already owned, a chance of employment, a great deal of careful consideration is given to the project. Generally it is the subject of discussion with our parents, husbands or wives, and friends. Naturally I am not advocating a wholesale discussion of your private business with anyone who will lend an apparently attentive ear. However, I am suggesting, as strongly as I may urge it, that in a serious matter wherein the stake is the future welfare, happiness, and prosperity of those who are close to you, you would be exhibiting excellent judgment to talk the matter over with the member or members of your family, vitally concerned. This would relate not only to your own will, but in the case of married women, that of their husbands. In the days of our grandmothers, according to the literature of the time, the hand that rocked the cradle may have ruled the world but generally speaking, rarely did it thrust a finger into those spheres of life where man ruled supreme. Grandfather would have been aghast at the suggestion that his fragile wife was thinking of such matters as a time when he might not be present to provide her with the necessities of life as well as the luxuries, if possible. In spite of the chivalrous spirit, which prompted this attitude, this view-point was not a kindness to grandmother. If she and her husband together, had reviewed their resources and responsibilities and discussed objectively how they both could best be handled by them together, or by either singly, fewer unfortunate situations would have arisen of bewildered, confused women confronted with heavy responsibilities at a time when they were least able to cope with such things. A testator who knows the individual needs of his family can judge whether one should be left an outright inheritance, whether another should be protected by the establishment of a trust fund far better than a Court officer striving to administer an estate equitably.

Since, in our time, it is our privilege to make a will disposing of whatever property, land or otherwise that we may own, it is somewhat difficult to conceive of a period in history when this opportunity was not available to our ancestors, and we may not be sufficiently appreciative of this boon or recognise it as such…

Although Mary wrote these lecture notes in 1945, reading through her words I reflected on how apt her assessment remains today. While many things have changed since 1945, such as the normalization of divorce, the proliferation of the blended family, the pervasiveness of technology in all of our lives, and the great strides we have begun to make toward gender parity, many aspects of our social landscape and our estate law regime (both statute and case law) look similar to the framework outlined in Mary’s lecture. 

Something else that has not changed is the reluctance with which so many of us approach estate planning. Although it is, of course, disconcerting if not unpleasant to contemplate one’s own mortality, the fact remains that a thoughtfully (and properly) prepared will is a gift, not only of peace of mind to yourself, but also of safety and security to your loved ones, who will not be forced to, in the midst of their grief, make their best guess as to how you would have wanted things done. As Mary explains in her lecture,

…If we regard the making of a will as a privilege accorded to us, rather than a ghoulish suggestion by people interested in the distribution of our possessions when we are no longer here to direct the process, more people might be pleased to avail themselves of the right. Surely it is highly preferable for a person to have a voice in the handling of his or her estate and know that it will be utilised as he or she would wish, rather than leaving the matter to be settled impersonally by statute law… 

Although I began reading Mary’s lecture notes for the primary purpose of hearing my grandmother’s point of view in her own words, I finished them feeling inspired to echo a call to arms that dates back 75 years. I encourage readers of this blog to review Mary’s lecture notes and avail themselves of our privilege to make a will, rather than being the jolly testator who makes his own will (or, worse, who has no will at all).

Have a great International Women’s Day and please take a moment on Sunday to appreciate the work done by all the women who have come before us.