We get this question a lot. “Once I have prepared my Last Will and Testament, and signed it in the presence of two witnesses, what do I do with it to make it legal? How do I register a Will?”
When do you register a Will?
In Canada, there is no way to register a Will until after you have died, and at this time, the Will is registered with the probate courts. In some Provinces, like British Columbia, you are able to register the location of your Will for a fee, with the department of vital statistics. British Columbia is the only Province to offer this.
There is also a private company called Notice Connect working to establish a nationwide centralized registry of Wills. We do partner with Notice Connect who offer free Will registration for LegalWills.ca customers. Again, at the Canada Will Registry you register the location of your Will, they do not store the document itself.
The lack of centralized Will registration leads to a significant problem and one that we deal with every day. People go to the trouble of preparing their Will, but after they have died, nobody can find it. We are contacted by loved ones asking how they can locate their parent’s Will. They typically want to know where the Will is registered so they can look it up. When we explain that there is no central repository, it comes as quite a surprise.
On the one hand, it would make sense to register a Will with a central agency so that no Wills go undiscovered, but Wills are living documents. We would hope that you would not only prepare your Will, but also review it and update it on a regular basis to ensure that it still reflects your family circumstances and your intentions. This is why the two registration options that exist today in Canada, allow you to register the location of the Will, not the Will itself.
Given that the law only permits a Will to be on paper, and originally signed, then the task of sending the Will into a central registry would be too onerous, and you would run the risk of one version being registered and a more up-to-date Will sitting at home.
Of course in 2020, there are no end of technical solutions that would ensure that everybody had a Will, kept it up to date, and stored it in a place that was accessible to their loved ones at the appropriate time. Sadly, the law doesn’t keep up very well with technical innovation. You should really be able to prepare your Will using an online service, sign it electronically, and then register a Will with the government. Then, when a death is confirmed, the department would release the person’s Will. But, this is nowhere close to today’s reality.
How to ensure that your Will is found
It doesn’t seem to make a difference whether the Will was prepared using an online service like ours, or using a lawyer. Even though lawyer’s sometimes offer to store the document on behalf of their client, people do move about, and if family members don’t know which lawyer was used, they are no better off. And lawyers typically only store the Will in their own vaults. They do not register a Will with any central body.
We frequently deal with customers who have a Will written by a lawyer, and then come to us to prepare a new Will. We don’t know that the old document is always located and destroyed, but their new Will is more likely to be located than their old one.
The legal process now is that you print your Will, sign it in the presence of two witnesses and then store the document “somewhere safe” that is known and accessible to your Executor. We sometimes recommend that you just give the Will to your Executor (or alternate Executor) in a sealed envelope for safe-keeping. By doing this, you protect the document against a flood or fire (clearly, if your Executor’s house burns down, you can prepare a new Will !).
The services at LegalWills.ca
At LegalWills.ca as well as providing a service to help you write your own Will, we do provide some tools to help your Executor and loved ones find your documents and your assets. We have a MyMessages service that allows you to prepare messages to be released after you have passed away. This is a perfect tool for letting people know where your Will is stored. We allow you to create Keyholders™ and grant them access to specified documents at the appropriate time. We also have an Executor Assistance tool through our LifeLocker service that allows you to document your assets for the benefit of your Executor.
When used together, these services allow you to create your Will, make sure that it is located at the appropriate time (and not before) and that your Executor knows where your assets are located.
But for now, if you are in BC you could consider registering your document with the department of vital statistics. For the rest of Canada you could consider the Canada Will Registry.
You do not have to register a Will to make it legal. Your Will is only registered after you have passed away and it has gone through the probate process.
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of LegalWills.ca.
He has over 20 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets including CTV, Global News, The Toronto Star, and other leading Canadian publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.
Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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