The first time Sherry Payne laid eyes on Randy O’Dell, she was certain he was about to fire her on the spot.
It was the fall of 1980. Payne had just arrived in Alberta from New Brunswick and had started a job as office assistant at Select Electric, where O’Dell was the general manager.
Payne had been warned that her new boss was gruff and that he had already burned through 10 office assistants so far that year. “Randy stormed into the office on my third day, demanding to know who was parked in the lot with New Brunswick plates,” says Payne. “I was sure it was the demise of Office Assistant Number 11.”
But it wasn’t the demise of anything — it was the beginning of a decades-long friendship that ended only with O’Dell’s death from lung and heart disease at 65.
As he became sick, O’Dell started planning a series of charitable donations from the assets he would leave behind. “I think he probably had it in mind for a long time, but it wasn’t until it was obvious he was terminally ill that Randy started making decisions about where it was going to go,” says Payne, the executrix of his will.
“He smiled more that morning than he had in the past couple of years. It was clear this donation was giving him new life, and serving as a great distraction through the days of discomfort, pain and worry.”
In 2016, already thin and frail, O’Dell surprised his close friends by appearing on TV to talk about a $4 million donation he had made to Wellspring Calgary, and how it will help build a facility to support people living with cancer. “He smiled more that morning than he had in the past couple of years,” says Payne. “It was clear this donation was giving him new life, and serving as a great distraction through the days of discomfort, pain and worry.”
After his death in 2017, O’Dell’s estate made an initial $2 million donation to SAIT, creating The Randy O’Dell Centre for Electrical Trades — the largest gift from a will in the Institute’s history. He felt strongly about giving back to the city where he built his company, and about supporting the trade that had supported him. He wanted to help other young electricians get their start.
O’Dell was just 28 years old when he formed his first company. At 31, he started O’Dell Electric “in a rented, run-down, mouse infested building in Bonnybrook Industrial Park,” remembers Payne, who was the new company’s bookkeeper.
Now, more than 30 years later, the company has its own building, an office staff of nine and more than 60 electricians. Today Payne is the company’s controller. Helping O’Dell figure out his estate got her thinking about how she, too, could help people after she’s gone. “I don’t have near the money he did, but it’s important to think about your estate,” she says.
As a chartered professional accountant and certified general accountant, Payne understands that a common misconception around estate planning is that it’s only about net worth. In fact, it’s about designating someone you trust to carry out your wishes and make decisions after you’re gone.
“Your will is the only document that speaks on your behalf after your death,” says Tony Wrobel, a SAIT Continuing Education instructor who teaches a course called Financial Planning Process and Estate Planning. A valid will ensures your estate — what you leave behind, from money in the bank, to property, to possessions — is distributed the way you would like, and stipulates who will care for any dependent children. Without a will “an element of control is lost,” says Wrobel.
A recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute found 51% of Canadians don’t have a will. The main reasons people give are they think they’re “too young to worry about it,” they don’t think they own enough assets to warrant a will, or they don’t want to think about dying or being incapacitated. But for Janice Moore (BA ’98), having a will “helps me sleep better at night.”
Moore had a will drafted when the first of her three children was born. “Being a parent, it was just a no-brainer for me,” she says.
If you die without having a will, you’re deemed to have died “intestate.” And that means provincial laws will decide what happens to all your assets and belongings — and who would look after any dependent children. “Each province will have similar rules but they’re not necessarily identical,” says Wrobel.
Another consideration, he says, is that provincial laws don’t always recognize common law or same-sex relationships, so your partner may not receive anything from your estate.
“Without a will, part of the decision as to who will receive your property is whether or not you were single, common law or legally married when you died,” Wrobel says.
Moore wanted to make sure she is the one who decides who gets what. Her will not only stipulates how her estate will be divided amongst her loved ones, it also names SAIT as a beneficiary.
“This donation will build a healthy endowment and have minimal impact on the estate I leave to my children,” Moore says. “They will get the majority, but this gift will make a difference to SAIT and to a lot of students.”
The endowment, which is like a savings account, will cover up to two annual awards for $500 that Moore has already established to help a SAIT student in financial need. Moore, a sales executive with TELUS in Edmonton, set up the Krissa-Moore award in 2014.
“I owe a lot to SAIT — my education took me places I could not imagine,” she says. “I don’t want the award to ever end, and the only way I have the capacity right now to build an endowment fund is through a gift in my will.
“It’s wonderful to know that, even after I’m gone, the award will continue because of this small gesture from my estate.”
Making a charitable gift through your will is known as planned giving or legacy giving. While some people, like Randy O’Dell, bequest millions of dollars, most of the legacy gifts SAIT receives are less than $10,000.
Moore admits, before she revised her will to add a bequest to SAIT, she found it a little uncomfortable to talk about. But the more she learned about the legacy giving process, the more she realized, “‘Oh my gosh — why wouldn’t I talk about it?’ It’s so important and there are so many tax advantages.”
So Moore had an open conversation with her teenaged children and discovered they are on board with the plan. They’re happy it makes their mom happy.
“You feel good when you give,” says Moore. “I’m not old — I’m 44 — but I think it’s important to be a little educated when you make a gift so you know you have control over how it will be used.”
Wrobel says it’s also important to keep your will up to date.
“Think of your will as a process that requires regular updating throughout the different stages of your life cycle,” says Wrobel. “Certain events will create urgency to update it: deciding to get married, receiving an inheritance, the birth of a child, a divorce, becoming common law, getting remarried, making a charitable gift.”
No matter when you draft or update your will, Wrobel recommends working with a lawyer. “In a worst case scenario, a will done on your own could be deemed invalid by the courts,” he says.
Randy O’Dell had his legacy plans in place before he died in 2017. And in his last days, he didn’t want a spotlight on his generosity.
“He was always very private. He didn’t want the attention,” Sherry Payne remembers. “But he said to me once, ‘After I’m dead and gone, I want my name all over the place!”‘
O’Dell was demanding and crusty and she loved him dearly. “Randy was my mentor, my guardian and my surrogate big brother,” she says. And while Payne misses him every day, she is thrilled she’s able to ensure his legacy lives on in the community.
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