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Estate professionals and executors are using digital platforms to streamline the estate administration process, reduce the chance of errors and cut costs.
“There are lots of inefficiencies in the estate administration process … that can be fixed with technology or [that] can be reduced,” said Jordan Atin, an estate lawyer and co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based eState Planner, which provides digital will creation and estate planning services to estate professionals.
Executors must fulfill several time-consuming and difficult duties when administering an estate. These include applying for probate, making an inventory of estate assets, providing beneficiaries with ongoing account statements and distributing assets. And if beneficiaries are unhappy with how the executor administered the estate, they can hold the executor personally liable for losses.
Often, executors will work with estate lawyers and accountants to administer an estate and file tax returns with the Canada Revenue Agency. They may also seek help from a professional trust company if the estate is large or complex enough to justify the cost.
Montreal-based ClearEstate Technologies Inc. launched in 2020, and offers digital estate administration services to executors as a kind of “one-stop shop” experience but at a lower price point than trust companies, said Davide Pisanu, co-founder and CEO. The company’s goal is to “make trust services more accessible to a larger segment of the market.”
ClearEstate’s digital tools help with the application for probate, inventory of estate assets and distribution, among other executor duties. The service also connects users to independent estate lawyers if needed.
ClearEstate operates across all Canadian provinces and several U.S. states, including New York, Texas and California. “As long as the main core of the estate is in jurisdictions that we serve, we can support the executor,” Pisanu said.
Where ClearEstate provides administration services to clients directly, Montreal-based Estateably provides cloud-based software that helps estate and trust administration professionals to automate part of their services. Also launched in 2020, Estateably provides services to more than 700 estate and trust practices across Canada and in 12 U.S. states.
“The pandemic spurred a lot of innovation in this space,” said Ari Brojde, founder and CEO of Estateably. “You had a whole [estate] industry that had gone to work remotely overnight that could now use our software to access their files from home.”
Atin, who co-founded eState in 2019, said the estate planning sector lags others when it comes to adopting technology. Estate lawyers “have got to move up from the 1800s,” he said.
Financial advisors, too, have been using digital estate planning or administration platforms to help clients and deepen relationships, even if they can’t provide legal advice.
“It allows [advisors] to quarterback the process,” Brojde said, and may increase their chances of keeping the family’s business when the primary client dies. Advisors can initiate estate planning conversations with the client’s spouse and children while the client is still alive.
Krystyne Rusek, an estate lawyer with Pallett Valo LLP in Mississauga, Ont., said that estate administration software simplifies the process and allows for cost savings, as it reduces the time professionals spend preparing documents.
In Ontario, the provincial government introduced a simplified estate administration process in 2021 to make it easier for individuals to administer small, simple estates without a lawyer. “It’s an access-to-justice issue, where people don’t have to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers’ fees,” Rusek said.
However, Rusek, whose practice is primarily in estate litigation, said she’s concerned that individual executors using a digital estate administration platform will expose themselves to risk if they view doing so as a substitute for obtaining legal advice.
“If you as an [executor] don’t realize that, [for example], a bank account that was jointly held is an estate asset because it was only jointly held as a convenience [and not intended as a gift], and the digital program doesn’t tell you, you’re missing a component of the estate administration process,” Rusek said.