Like many Canadians, I have spent quite some time in recent months contemplating life: the existential aspects to some degree – prioritizing who matters most, how to make the most of my time and so on. I have also been thinking more specifically about the inordinate amount of time required to manage one’s affairs.
Technology is solving many of these problems, but it is at the very end of life, at the most difficult time for those left behind, that the inefficiencies cause the most pain.
Even nearly two years into the pandemic, government institutions and courts across the country still refuse to plan and settle estates or perform other simple financial transactions digitally and, in the process, unjustly cause Canadians great distress.
I’ve been flabbergasted to learn of the tasks involved in what is essentially a simple asset transfer, including an endless trail of mandatory verification paperwork that could easily be automated.
There are too many inefficiencies to name but one top-line observation is that the net worth of an estate – and I cannot emphasize this point enough – does not correlate with the level of complexity of the estate’s settlement.
Ordinary Canadians are often saddled with extraordinary costs and endless paperwork.
The urgency of overdue reforms
As a result of the pandemic, Canadians have had many frank discussions about death as of late but few on its aftermath. Our public institutions should take the lead to ensure that efficient estate-settlement processes are in place to reduce the burden on those who are grieving. The system simply does not work as it should and requires deep reform that is centred above all on empathy.
Even as awareness of pandemic-era physical distancing is at its peak, government institutions continue to unjustly force Canadians into using analogue, in-person systems when perfectly secure, convenient and legally binding digital alternatives like e-signatures are readily available.
Being named an estate executor in the wake of the death of a loved one is a scenario I would not wish on any Canadian.
The role comes with unexpected responsibilities; the enormous time commitment is the biggest shock to most. It takes on average about a year and a half to settle an estate. It is also expensive for the estate and occasionally individuals, with professional-services fees frequently exceeding $10,000.
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Obtaining a mortgage and buying a house can be done in much less time than transferring and taxing assets according to the wishes of the estate, planned or otherwise. It needn’t be this complicated. Governments and financial institutions must be incentivized to fast track transactions, especially those that free up capital for Canadians in turbulent economic times.
Unfortunately, like replacing water pipes and other unseen systems, it can often be daunting for public sector institutions to take on major infrastructure work. Our financial technology infrastructure requires a robust modernization plan to not only make interactions with the government more efficient, but to ensure economically vulnerable groups are not unfairly punished by bureaucracies.
A pandemic pivot for Canadian estates
One key area ripe for modernization and democratization is probate, an important process that needn’t be so complex. The system for Canadian governments to make a death official hasn’t undergone major structural reforms to promote fairness and access to justice in a 21st-century context.
Millennia ago, citizens of England lost the right to own or inherit land, and feudal law implemented the probate process as a means to control and tax all other assets. Over time, the system that Canada inherited became less discriminatory, but it remains most challenging for those with fewer resources. Families with greater means are shielded by professionals from the onerous duties associated with estate settlement. Those with lower incomes aren’t that lucky.
Another productive reform would be the implementation of a Canada-wide central repository for wills. Quebec has one and British Columbia is creating its own, but there is no such structure federally or across most provinces.
We have the technology to accurately track digital transactions. Experts have been saying for over a decade that e-signatures are safer than paper ones and we can definitively identify users and process information with superhuman precision. We can communicate all of these things securely and efficiently to institutions, but we just need the will to innovate in these uncomfortable spaces.
The pandemic has reminded us how meaningful human connections are in life, and technology that enables the transmission of human empathy has the power to solve our biggest problems. Mere months ago, criminal trials by videoconference would have been unimaginable, buying a home with a digital signature, equally so. Today, we are beginning to view technological inefficiencies as evidence of an absence of empathy.
As we look ahead to a post-pandemic future, I am encouraged by the lessons we’ve learned along the way and how Canadian lives can be made considerably more comfortable by digital innovations. Like investing, public transportation and various sectors undergoing rapid disruption, estate settlement will be optimized. The only question is how much longer will we tolerate the unnecessarily cruel tasks that come at the end of life?