After the death of an individual, every estate must file a final (or ‘terminal’) tax return. All assets are deemed to disposed of at the time of passing, and this can trigger probate fees and other expenses.
A certificate of appointment (“Probate”) or Estate Administration Tax (EAT) is not always necessary to actualize the transfer of certain assets. Much depends on how the asset is held during one’s lifetime, and the value of the asset transferred. Some institutions will not require probate for assets under a certain amount. Concerning jointly-owned real property, and bank or investment accounts, these assets will pass to the surviving joint tenant by right of survivorship. In cases where joint ownership of assets is considered for estate planning purposes, it would be prudent to obtain legal advice.
Life Insurers offer life insurance policies, segregated funds, and term funds, which may designate one or more primary beneficiaries, and further contingent (secondary) beneficiaries, allowing probate/EAT to be circumvented entirely, enabling direct access to those funds without joint ownership or survivorship of a joint tenant. Segregated funds and term funds are classified as deferred annuity policies, and as such, these assets can help lessen the overall fees charged on your estate. Monies pass privately and directly to your beneficiaries, outside of your estate and the probate process.
Concerns for Estate Planning
In Ontario, Probate fees were the forerunner of the new Estate Administration Tax (EAT), which is to shift to the Minister of Revenue. An Executor/Trustee will now have to file a detailed summary of assets that are distributable under the will. The Ministry reserves the right to take up to 4 years to assess, or the right to reassess, making the Executor/Trustees responsible for that reassessment. Executors and beneficiaries may face liabilities if estate assets distribute before assessment or reassessment. How does an Executor reclaim assets already distributed?
Assessment powers are not minor With the introduction of the estate administration tax (EAT), the government has given the Minister of Revenue audit and verification powers patterned after the federal Income Tax Act, thus giving the Minister of Revenue the right to assess an estate in respect of its EAT liability.
Estate trustees may be personally liable for the claims of creditors that cannot be paid as a result of an improper estate distribution. It will be an offence for an estate trustee to fail to make the required filing with the Minister of Revenue or where anyone makes, or assists in making, a false or misleading or omitted fact in connection with the estate trustee’s filing. Because offences are punishable by fine, imprisonment or by both, errors and omission insurance may be needed by executors handling larger estates.
Potential Legal Issues for Estate Trustees and Executors
Imagine if you are a personally chosen friend of a deceased person with $1.5 million in assets, who previously selected you as Executor/Trustee of his or her estate. Though duty-bound, you may feel that the risk is now very high if an error occurs. Consequently, you may want to off-load the potential liability to a professional accountant and lawyer to present all the documentation for EAT.
Consider that the costs of such a transfer of liability could rise to the maximum of 6% per professional (two professionals would mean 2 x 6%) of the value of the Estate. This could bring the total cost of dealing with EAT to a maximum of 13.5% of the estate value. In the above case, fees could cost upwards of $202,500.
Segregated and Term funds may offer investors an edge over other investment products in the province of Ontario when it comes to planning someone’s Estate. Segregated and Term funds also offer estate privacy of the distribution of money under the insurance act.
Note: Not applicable in Québec as notarial wills do not need to be probated by the court and, for holograph wills and wills made in the presence of witnesses, probate fees are minimal.