“41 million wills available to search online for the first time,” a press release from the UK’s Ministry of Justice trumpeted. The truth is somewhat more prosaic, but still reflects an excellent initiative that should be emulated by Ontario.
The UK government, in partnership with Iron Mountain, has electronically archived 41 million wills dating back to 1858, including those of “Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Alan Turing and Beatrix Potter.” However, those hoping to browse through the wills of these individuals and others will be disappointed. Instead of having the wills accessible online, for a £10.00 fee scanned copies of the wills can be made available for 31 days. In addition, the relatives’ permission must be obtained before the wills are published.
The website, however, does provide a wealth of information. For individuals who died after 1996, a person’s date of death, date of probate and registry (i.e. location) are provided. This information appears to be provided for individuals who died before 1996, along with the value of their personal effects. For example, of the individuals listed above, Alan Turing was worth £4603, 5 shillings and 4 pence at the date of his death (approximately CAD$232,000 in today’s dollars) while Sir Winston Churchill was worth £304,044 (approximately CAD$10.8 million in today’s dollars). The names and occupation of their estate trustee(s) are also provided (Sir Winston’s estate trustees are listed as being a “married woman”, a “widow” and a “banker”).
The legal value of this website, of course, is far more than being able to gaze into such private details of historical figures; it lies in the ability to see the status of current estates. While it is unclear how often the website updates, grants of probate as of yesterday’s date, are shown in the search display (it is not known whether information regarding all grants of probate issued on that date have been uploaded to website). As such, the website appears to be a quick and efficient way of determining whether probate has been issued for a particular person and will.
By contrast, in Ontario, it can be a difficult process to find out if a will has been probated. A search has to be made either in person at the courthouse or via inquiry mail (e-mail not accepted) along with the payment of a fee.
Ontario should take a page from our British friends and implement a similar system. Members of the public should be able, at the very least, to quickly ascertain online whether a deceased has a will that has been admitted to probate without having to expend money or time.