Settling an estate after someone dies can take a considerable length of time to complete, usually longer than you anticipate. Can it be settled in 6 months? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. 12 months? Sometimes, but in my experience it takes 12 – 18 months to settle most middle-class estates. “But I just have to cancel a few pensions and close the bank account”, you say. There is usually more to it than that, so without boring you with all the finer details, let’s talk about some of the time-consuming tasks.
The funeral is over now, family members have gone back home, and everyone is beginning to settle back in to their daily routine. But not the executor… that person’s role has just started. Since the will likely needs to be probated let’s begin with generating a list of assets and liabilities, including the values as of the date of death. This is an iterative process, requiring you to communicate with numerous companies and, since most of these companies require a copy of the death certificate, one will have to be mailed to them, or you will have to attend in person. Here are a few questions to get you thinking:
- Where are the bank accounts, and what are the balances?
- What is the outstanding balance on the mortgage of the house?
- Are the monthly condo strata fees up to date?
- Have property taxes been deferred?
- What is the value of the Canada Savings Bonds and/or GIC’s? Hint: need to determine accrued interest.
- If the person was self-employed, what is the value of the corporate shares?
- Are there any assets and/or debts outside of Canada, such as a home in Arizona or Florida? Don’t forget about timeshares. You may have to file for probate again in these other jurisdictions.
- What is the coin collection worth? Art? Hockey cards? Jewelry?
OK, the list of assets & liabilities is finished and you (or your lawyer) have prepared the probate documents. In my experience the probate registry usually takes 2 – 3 months to process the documents. Sometimes sooner, but don’t bank on it.
While you’re waiting for the Grant of Probate to be issued, we can prepare the home for sale, including deciding what to do with all of the possessions. Some things can be given to family members, some can be sold, and other items will need to be thrown out. Complete any necessary work in the home, such as painting and carpet cleaning.
If the deceased was self-employed there may be a company to manage. Someone will need to oversee the staff and there may be customers requiring attention. This company likely has value, so the executor needs to ensure the value is maintained. Consider professional assistance.
The terminal income tax return will need to be filed and, possibly, a Trust return for the estate itself. Each one will take time for Canada Revenue Agency to process, and you should also request Tax Clearance Certificates, again, each taking time for CRA to process.
Well, so far, so good. Although we’ve been at it for a number of months now, at least everything is progressing. But wait! One of the children is upset because he was written out of the will, so he files a lawsuit to challenge the terms of the will. Now all bets are off because it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to settle this estate. Don’t kid yourself… this is becoming all too common, especially with the ever-increasing value of estates.
Now it’s time to distribute the proceeds of the estate. The assets have been sold, debts paid, tax returns filed, and lawsuits settled. Before distributing the money, the beneficiaries need to pass the accounts, meaning they need to approve the expenditures. This can be quick & easy, or long & drawn out. By the way, you were maintaining detailed bookkeeping records, right? Sorry, I forgot to mention that little detail earlier.
In addition to everything described above, the executor likely has other obligations, too, such as family and work. The executor may also have to research how to settle an estate in the first place, may be uncomfortable using a computer, and might simply procrastinate. But the clock keeps ticking while the beneficiaries are waiting.
To summarize, settling an estate can take a surprisingly long time and it can be very time-consuming.