Estateably: Changing the Estate Settlement Game
My grandmother immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s. When she passed away in November 2015, she left behind a modest estate. Her last will and testament directed that her estate be divided equally amongst her three grandchildren. Today, some three years later, her estate remains unsettled.
Unfortunately, her story isn’t as unique as one might think. According to the Canadian Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, estate settlement — the process whereby the assets of a deceased person are transferred to beneficiaries — takes an average of 26 to 34 months. They note that this figure relates to relatively simple estates; complex estates can take much longer to close.
What, exactly, is the hold up?
Estate settlement in Canada is an old and antiquated process that requires the fulfillment of many mandatory steps that must be performed in a strict sequence. The process also involves multiple participants including executors, agencies at various levels of government, asset custodians, certified valuators, beneficiaries, as well as creditors. Each of these actors use their own databases to record their version of the truth as far as the estate is concerned. Because the value being transferred from the deceased to beneficiaries can be significant, and personal and legal liability can arise at almost each and every step along the way, there is an amplified lack of trust amongst estate settlement participants.
This lack of trust creates delays in the execution of estate settlement, as actors must visually certify that documents and signatures provided are authentic and that information has not been tampered with to anyone’s unfair advantage.
At Estateably, we’ve been hard at work interviewing estate participants in an attempt to uncover some of their most pressing pain points as well as the underlying inefficiencies in the settlement process. While inefficiencies abound, one common theme that emerged in our discussions was the frustration that all actors expressed around obtaining a tax clearance certificate. This should come as no surprise to anyone in the CRA’s tax clearance department. In fact, in their 2018–19 departmental plan, the CRA writes that “the Agency is responding to feedback about how we process clearance (certificates) by developing measures to reduce the time to process these requests.”
What is a tax clearance certificate?
Technically, before estate assets can be distributed to beneficiaries, the executor must obtain a document called a “Tax Clearance Certificate” from the Canada Revenue Agency. The certificate is CRA’s acknowledgement that the deceased’s estate taxes have been filed, that a notice of assessment has been issued, and any outstanding taxes owed have been paid. It absolves the estate’s legal representative from any further liability in his capacity as executor.
In order to be granted the Certificate, the executor must assemble a package which must include the (TX-19) application form and necessary supporting documents, including a signed copy of the will, proof of executorship, the deceased’s final inventory of assets and liabilities, a statement of distribution to date, a statement of proposed distribution, and a list of beneficiaries. Currently, there is no method to submit the package electronically; it must be sent via regular mail to the regional tax certificate clearance office for processing.
The entire approval process for clearance can take several weeks. Representatives at the CRA insist that the 120 days advertised on the CRA’s website is merely a benchmark guideline — that most recently, they’ve actually managed to reduce the average time to issuance to 37 days. This is in stark contrast, however, with the general experience of professionals on the other end of the transaction, many of whom claimed that they’ve never witnessed a certificate issued within the advertised 120 day benchmark.
There are a few issues that prevent the tax certificate from being issued immediately.
First, there is a strict business requirement that the certificate can only be issued to the estate’s legal representative; indeed, if the CRA issues it to anyone other than the appropriate person, it can be held legally liable for damages. In order to ascertain who is the true estate representative, the responsible agent at the tax clearance department must wait until the T3 estate tax return is filed with and processed by the relevant tax processing department. The name on the TX-19 application must match the name of the legal representative on Line 4 of the T3 return, otherwise the application is automatically rejected. So until the tax processing department does its’ job and reviews the tax return, the clearance department is forced to sit and wait.
A second issue that delays the tax certificate from being issued promptly involves CRA’s renewed focus on improving collections while minimizing tax evasion and tax avoidance. To this end, the CRA “continues to design new predictive models and algorithms, which are tested against existing approaches to ensure that the Agency is obtaining the results it needs.
Continual experimentation, testing, and refinement of these models ensures that the CRA remains at the forefront of detecting complex fraud and tax evasion schemes.” As far as the distribution of estate property to beneficiaries goes, the CRA will need to explore ways in which it can quickly “read” the last will and testament of the deceased, or otherwise codify legally-prescribed distribution schemes for intestate estates, to determine which assets should devolve to which beneficiaries. This way a system to automatically flag this information can be built to ensure that the CRA can properly enforce the collection of taxes on the beneficiary’s following-year tax return.
Given the strict business requirements outlined above, Estateably has chosen to build its’ platform upon the Hyperledger Fabric framework. Fabric is a private distributed ledger framework that comes with several important features out-of-the-box, including the ability to create different subnets, called channels, for the sharing of certain privileged information amongst pre-defined parties, as well the ability to write and incorporate chaincode (Hyperledger’s version of smart contracts) which can help automate many of the manual processes found in the estate settlement process.
Finally, given that Hyperledger Fabric is the most advanced open-source platform for enterprise-grade blockchain networks, we feel it is best suited to meet the security and privacy expectations of estate settlement participants and drive efficiencies for our target users in both governments and professional firms offering estate administration services.
Estateably will be working hard in the coming months, developing its proof-of-concept and forging relationships with corporate executors, Quebec notaries, and the CRA towards the goal of creating near-instant tax clearance certificate issuance. If we succeed, several months could well be shaved off the overall estate settlement process in Canada. Eventually, we believe that we can fulfill our mission of creating near-instant estate settlement that maintains jurisdictional compliance by simply having executors around the globe upload a death certificate, and (in the case of testate deaths) the last will and testament, into our platform. It’s an ambitious vision, but one that we and our investors are extremely passionate about.
An estate settlement process expedited by the Estateably platform will stand to benefit everyone involved. Executors can reduce the time and effort spent on settling estates, while at the same time ensuring their personal liability is minimized. Estate beneficiaries, for perhaps the first time ever, can begin to track the progress of the estate settlement, and stand to inherit assets faster.
Finally, governments around the globe can ensure that estate settlement procedures have been legally fulfilled and can recover tax revenues sooner, all while providing citizens with the digital experiences they’ve come to expect.
We’re excited about the future and invite you to join us on this journey.
Visit www.estateably.com to learn more.