Registering your Last Will and Testament: what’s the point?

One of the most frequent questions we receive at LegalWills is “do I have to register my Last Will and Testament somewhere in order for it to be official?” The short answer is of course, no, but we’ll spend a little time today delving into what it means to register a Will.

First, a point of clarification. We are speaking purely of registering your Will while you are alive, not the registration of a Will that happens once you have passed away, after your Will has been probated and read.

The act of registering a Will while you are alive is an attempt to overcome the problem of people not being able to find a Will when they need it. We wrote about this in a previous blog posting, and we’ve seen stats claiming that 67% of people do not know where to find their parents’ Will. It is vital that the right people can find your Will at the right time, and this is where the concept of registering the Will comes in, but in our opinion it’s a highly ineffective way of attempting to solve the problem.

No country has an official central Will registry, but let’s look at a few approaches taken by different jurisdictions that allow for the registering of a Will.

In British Columbia, you can register the location of your Will with the provincial department of vital statistics. For about $18 you can file a notice that ” identifies that a will has been registered and describes the person who has made the will, where the will is located, and the date of the will.” You cannot register the Will itself, but you can say “I have a Will and it’s at home in my bedside table”. Once you have passed away, your loved ones can contact the vital statistics department, pay $20, submit a death certificate and request a search.

In the UK it has been left to private enterprises to offer the same kind of service. Certainty.co.uk appears to be the market leader in allowing you to register the location of your Will, but again, it’s not the Will itself, but a pointer to the location of the Will, whether that be with a solicitor or a location at home. For this, the charge is £30. (although searching for the registered Will costs anything from £25 to £235!!).  However, Willdata.info also claim to be the UK National Wills registry and it never helps to have more than one national registry!! (WillData incidentally is free to register a Will, and £18.50 to search)

Some States in the US have tried to do a little more. For example, in Alaska, you can deposit a Will for safekeeping with the courts. The service is described as follows

“If you deposit your will with the court, it will be kept in a secure place, and the will is kept confidential by the court until you die. After you die, your will is no longer confidential and it becomes a public court record. Also, even though your will itself is confidential while you are living, the fact that you deposited your will for safekeeping is not confidential, and others may search electronically for the names of  people who have deposited wills.”

The fee for this service is $40. But the service comes with this reminder “It is your responsibility to be sure the designated person(s) know that upon your death they must contact the court and request your will.”

There is definitely a real issue with Wills not being located when they are needed, but the registration process seems to be a very poor effort at solving that problem. I would hazard a guess that less than 1 percent of Wills are registered, and in reality, hardly anybody has even heard of these registries. The idea of paying $20-$50 to store centrally the piece of information that states that your Will is stored at home in a cookie jar seems ridiculous, and in some cases it is little more than opportunism by private corporations.

The bottom line is that there is no requirement to register your Will centrally to make it legal and in our opinion, there is very little value in doing this. We do have a service at LegalWills that allows you to create messages for loved ones to be distributed after you have passed away, and this would seem to be as effective as any of these Will registries. We try to reinforce the practice of regularly reviewing and updating your Will so storing the document itself with a government agency would seem to be counterproductive.

By far the most effective approach is just to tell your Executor where your Will is located. You will be trusting your Executor to distribute your assets according to your wishes, and they should be told ahead of time that they have been selected for this role. So you should have enough faith in this person to let them know where your Will is stored. This should guarantee that the document will be available to the right people at the appropriate time.

9 thoughts on “Registering your Last Will and Testament: what’s the point?

  1. Mike says:

    Tim. I liked your article. I work in BC and as you mentioned in your article we have a Wills Registry operated by vital statistics. My experience is that is more trouble than it is worth and I agre with your recommendations.

    Here are a couple examples I have come across where Wills Notices casued a lot of trouble.

    Law firm made a typo in the Wills Notice stating the date of the Will was March 23, 2005 (the date the Wills Notice paperwork was completed) instead of the date of the Will which was March 22, 2005. It is a lot of work to get probate of a Will when a law frim has filed a Wills notice stating the testator made a newer Will.

    A testator made a Will with a law firm and a Wills Notice is filed but the testator brought his Will home with him. 10 years later he didin’t like his will so he destoryed it (at least that is what we think happened). He of course didin’t think to notify Vital Statistics that he has revoked his Will. He never bothered to do a new Will because having no Will meant his estate would go equally to his kids (or he just never learned about your service). It is a lot of work to convince the court that he died without a Will when there is a Wills Notice filed saying he has a Will.

    I have a question for you. My understanding is that BC is the only provice with a Wills Registry operated by the government. You article seems to confirm this. Is there any sort of government or court registry in Ontario or any other Canadian province that you are aware of.

  2. Thanks for the comment Mike. I’ve done some digging and the Ontario government website makes reference to registering your Will “with the estates division of your local court” but I couldn’t find any information about this on the attorney general for ontario website. There is also a private service called ontariowillregister.com who let you store your Will with them for $300 plus $150 a year !!

    So the short answer to your question is no; there doesn’t appear to be any government registry in Ontario. I’ve had a look for most other provinces in Canada and can’t find anything (except Quebec of course).

    I need to write a follow up article though because there seem to be a very large number of independent services offering to do this, and I’m not sure how legitimate any of these services are.

  3. Salam Madar says:

    Mike’s reply is obviously fake and made up by Tim himself with a different account. This allows Tim to further advertise his company. Lol good job Tim.

  4. Tim Hewson says:

    Thanks for the comment Salam, but I can absolutely assure you that I have never met Mike and know nothing about him. I know he is in BC (I am in Ottawa) and he has made some comments on other blog entries that are tough questions from a different perspective. Certainly comments that I would not have made myself, or even necessarily wanted to be made. It will be tough convincing you, but Mike’s comments are definitely not staged by us!

  5. Hi Tim

    I work for Willfinda, a National Wills Register. I have read your article and would like to make a few comments concerning the service in the UK.

    As you have correctly noted the UK does not have a compulsory National Wills Register and it surprises me that companies such as Certainty and Willdata continue to refer to themselves as ‘the’ National Will Registry when as you have correctly pointed out these are in fact private enterprises and not government backed initiatives. However, I must disagree with your opinion that there is very little value in registering the location of a Will or the idea that paying to store centrally the piece of information that states a Will is stored at home in a cookie jar is ridiculous.

    The reality is the days of storing a Will with the family solicitor or the local bank are long gone. This is partly due to the fact we move more often, both nationally and internationally, but also because we live in a world where a lot of services can now be carried out online, such as drafting Wills. This can make it very difficult after a death for family members to know where to look for a Will if they are not already aware of its location. Regardless of whether the Will is stored in a cookie jar, at a bank or even with a Will storage company, if your loved ones do not know where the Will is there is always the danger that it may never be found. A Will Register takes away this risk by ensuring that it can always be located.

    You also state that it can cost up to £235 to search for a Will? This may be true of some of our competitors but is certainly not the case at Willfinda.

    At Willfinda we store the location of a persons Will for just £9.99 and make it easy for people to amend the location and details as necessary without having to re-register. To search for a Will costs £34.99 and if we don’t hold the location of the Will on our database we conduct a search with solicitors over a wide geographical area to see if one can be located. If found we can then pass this information to the executors. We believe this is extremely good value compared to the time and cost if someone tried to contact all these law firms themselves. We do not see that as opportunism. This not only takes away the stress of loved ones searching for a Will but also provides evidence that reasonable attempts to search for a Will have been made if one cannot be located.

    DIY Wills are certainly becoming more common and we believe it is all the more important that these Wills can be located after death.

    • Hi Simon, thanks for your comment. It still remains our most asked question at LegalWills; “I know my Dad had a Will, but we don’t know where it is, how can we find it?” we get that question EVERY day. I appreciate your detailed comment, and I wouldn’t regard your service as opportunism at all, the fact that you search your own database and then conduct a search with solicitors in the area makes your service a little different, and very useful.

      I’m still not entirely convinced of the value of paying a subscription to store information about the location of one’s Will, and I’m an equally alarmed by the number of services popping up claiming to store an “online version of your Will”. But I do not have any issue with Will search services and from this point on, we are happy to refer people to Willfinda when we get that question.

  6. My question resolves around the requirement to perform a Will search (in British Columbia) as part of the Probate process. The Probate court requires two originals of the Will search. My question is that if registering a Will is not mandatory and the Will search is negative, how is the court going to determine that the Will presented as part of the probate process in fact is the Last Will and Testament?

    • Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. As far as I am aware, BC is the only Province with any kind of Wills Registry, and as noted in the article, you can only register the location of the Will, not the Will itself. The process for determining the validity of the Last Will and Testament is the essence of the probate process. People can submit different Wills to probate, and the courts determine which is the most recent, legitimate Will, based on the claims made by the people submitting the Will. Ideally there shouldn’t be multiple Wills submitted, but if there are, then the mental health of the individual and the circumstances surrounding the signing will all be taken into account. It’s usually a messy, legal process.

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