News and industry insights

Estate Planning Survey Results Reveal Unusual Inheritances

By Estatesearch on June 27th, 2024

A treasure map, a vampire statue and toothbrush have all been left in Wills according to a new research study based on Estate Planning where 2,000 Canadian residents conducted by independent market research firm Danebury Research on behalf of legal technology company, Estatesearch. 

The survey, designed to find out more about estate planning, also found people had inherited various quirky items from a ceramic squirrel to a massage chair.  Other weird items included: gnomes, an empty packet of gum and a beer can.  One respondent claimed to have been left Paul Newman’s used toothbrush by a relative who was a hotel worker. 

Addressing Challenges in Estate Planning

Jonathan Upton, Director, Estatesearch confirmed: “While these unorthodox items may leave beneficiaries and Paul Newman fans intrigued, it’s our aim to help eliminate any surprises when it comes to the financial assets of an estate.   Having just launched our Financial Profile Service in Canada, we put together this survey to understand the asset discovery challenges that lawyers face when identifying the full extent of a person’s estate.

“The study highlights some strange items left in Wills, but on a more serious note it was designed to establish how easily people can locate assets like life insurance, workplace pensions, savings and investments.  The survey revealed that 29% of people can’t easily locate or don’t know the whereabouts of their Workplace Pension for example.  This was the highest in Quebec where nearly a third of people can’t easily locate or don’t know the whereabouts of their Workplace Pension, 30% in Ontario compared with 22% in British Columbia and 19% in Alberta.

“We also found that a further 26% of people had not, or were unsure, if they had informed their next of kin where to find information pertaining to life insurance.  This was highest in Alberta where 35% had not, or were unsure, if they had informed their next of kin where to find such policies, and lowest in Ontario (24%).

“We also discovered only half the respondents have a Will (51%) and of these, 20% said that it needs updating. This is a worrying statistic as there could be assets which are not accounted for in the Will, something that could lead to unnecessary additional legal costs, tax recalculations or in the worst-case scenario, estate disputes and litigation.

“Of those who had a Will, only 55% had engaged with a lawyer to write the Will.  Of those who wrote their own Will, 28% did not or were unsure if it had been witnessed by two independent witnesses, or whether this was needed.”

Further findings included:

  • 21% of people can’t easily locate or do not know the whereabouts of Registered Savings and investment plans.
  • 38% can’t easily locate or do not know the whereabouts of shareholders certificates or bonds.
  • 25% can’t easily locate or do not know the whereabouts of life insurance policies.
  • Those residing in Quebec (55%) and British Columbia (54%) are most likely to have a Will, while those living in Alberta are least likely to have a will 44% (Ontario 48%).
  • As expected, younger people are less likely to have a will.  In the 18-24 year old age bracket 40% of respondents have a Will, compared with just over half (57%) of 55-64 year olds, and more than three quarters (76%) of those over the age of 65.
  • However, only 19% of the 18-24 year olds said their Will was up to date compared with 35% of 55-64 year olds and 53% of those over 65.
  • There is a clear gender disparity with well over half of male respondents confirming they have a Will (58%) compared with only 43% of women.
  • From those who used a lawyer to help write their will, 40% would expect them to be contacted periodically to ensure contact details are up to date.  59% would expect their lawyer to contact their Executor / Next of Kin in the event that they passed away.
  • 34% of respondents own digital assets including 17% with online gaming/gambling accounts and 16% cryptocurrency.  Yet, 51% had not considered or didn’t know if they had considered digital assets when it came to estate planning.

Navigating Estate Planning Obstacles

Jonathan Upton continues: “Inspired by the Bond film Skyfall, where Judi Dench’s character M left James Bond a ‘Bulldog figurine’ in her Will, we also decided to find out what interesting or unusual items people had inherited.  Further answers included: a cigarette lighter, a stuffed baby seal, a jeweler’s anvil and a dog collar!

“Although this question was designed to be lighthearted, our survey highlights the real challenges which families and their executors face when it comes to identifying and locating the assets and Wills of the deceased.  Over time, it’s easy to lose track of workplace pensions or life insurance policies.”

Research shows that there are currently approximately 1.8 million bank balances – worth $678 million – that have gone unclaimed.* This includes savings and chequing/current accounts; bank drafts, certified cheques, official cheques, money orders, traveler’s cheques, credit card balances, term deposits, guaranteed investment certificates (GIC) and depository receipts. While many Canadian provinces have escheatment processes for dormant bank accounts, there are other assets and liabilities to consider such as pensions, investments and insurance policies.

The key to making it simple

Jonathan Upton continues: “Our asset and liability searches often identify unknown bank accounts containing thousands of dollars, and these searches help lawyers to obtain a fuller picture of the estate and rightfully distribute funds to the beneficiaries.  Away from our core services, Estatesearch is also committed to promoting awareness of the issues faced by lawyers to the wider financial industry, facilitating conversations between financial institutions and legal membership groups. As one of the founders of the Vulnerable Banking Group in the UK, we are developing technology to help firms comply with legal regulation and ultimately improve outcomes for vulnerable people at what can be a difficult time. The results of this research will now be used to educate and inform professionals in the estate industry about the challenges and solutions available to support their due diligence processes in identifying estate assets.”

Originally published in Canadian Lawyer.