Is probating an estate expensive?


It is a significant job for the executor to probate a will. The original will must be submitted with an inventory listing the estate’s assets recorded at their fair market value to the court in the jurisdiction where the deceased last lived. There may be increased fees if a lawyer is retained to cross-examine the asset list or if the executor charges a percentage of the asset base to do the work.

Probate fees are paid from an estate to the provincial court. These fees are approximately .5% to 1.5% of the estate’s assets, depending on the size of the estate and the province. Provincial lawyers complete the necessary ‘letters of probate’ or ‘grant of probate document.’ In Ontario, they are now referred to as ‘the certificate of appointment of estate trustee with a will.’

Because probate is calculated on assets, regardless of liabilities, an estate with assets of $1 million and liabilities of $200,000 would pay probate on the entire million. In addition, if these same assets are transferred to your spouse, probate fees may be due again the second time around when these assets are transferred through his or her will. These fees are paid with after-tax dollars, as they are not deductible on the final income tax return. There is no law stating that a simple will and estate needs probating.

How can I minimize the need for estate probate?

There are a few tactics whereby you can reduce the need for an estate to be probated by the government:

Defer possible probate by holding assets jointly. Probate fees may be charged when that asset is transferred later through the will of the second spouse.

  • Establish a person as a beneficiary on your life insurance policies independent of the estate. This way, all monies pass to the heirs tax-free. If the estate needs probating, this portion of the assets will not be included in the estate, as the death benefit will flow directly to the heirs circumventing scrutiny. Life insurance strategies are excellent financial tools to circumvent probate on larger wealth transfers to heirs. Family wealth can be positioned to pass through life insurance policies, delivering tax-free benefits without probate. This method has frequently been used to transfer inter- generational estate wealth in the millions.
  • Name your beneficiaries on your RRSPs and RRIFs. Insurance companies’ products will allow you to sidestep probate in this way. To protect themselves, banks and trust companies will probably require probate or a letter of indemnity from the estate’s lawyer if the assets are significant. If your spouse is your beneficiary, consider a secondary beneficiary should your spouse die at the same time you do.
  • Consider setting up a spousal testamentary trust in your will to avoid double probate. When the second spouse dies, the assets can be distributed via the trust directives as opposed to a will.
  • With your spouse, set up mutually owned property as ‘joint tenants with rights of survivorship to transfer these assets automatically outside of the will.

Once the will has been probated (if necessary) and the executor confirmed, he or she could start transferring assets as directed by the will. Some assets can be transferred easily within a short period of time. Others have to wait until the estate expenses have been paid, including any final income taxes due to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), after which they will issue a tax clearance certificate.

Note: The Estate Administration Tax (ETA) in Ontario, will replace some of the previous probate processes, and may add more complexity to the above scenarios. If your estate is large, it would be wise to seek the advice of a good tax accountant.