A lawyer-led Toronto startup is hoping to help people find the lawyers who have their lost wills.
NoticeConnect will launch the Canada Will Registry on May 27, a tool to help law firms upload and manage the wills in their vaults and help people search for them. Ultimately, the company hopes it will be akin to a title search system but for estates lawyers.
“Many of our customers were bringing to our attention the issue of missing wills and just how much of a problem it is,” says Patrick Hartford, a lawyer and CEO of NoticeConnect. “And it’s a big problem. Given the demographics of the province, if somebody makes a will, it’s obviously important that their wishes are going to be respected and administered properly. There’s an access to justice component — it can really clog up court resources to prove a will is missing instead of just revoked.”
The registry will allow law firms to upload a spreadsheet of their wills in bulk, and NoticeConnect will help the law firms format the data correctly to make it possible to upload a registration file of 40,000 wills in 30 seconds, says Hartford.
“Firms have a responsibility to stay on top of people looking for wills, to make sure they have received one. There is a value to the firm to being alerted if someone is looking for it. You don’t want that potential liability of sitting on a will that someone is looking for and it’s found out too late that you had it the whole time,” Hartford says.
When someone is looking for a will, NoticeConnect releases a certificate that lists the details of what was searched. But the searcher doesn’t get information about the whereabouts of the will from NoticeConnect. Instead, if there is a match, the law firm that has the will gets a notification that someone is looking for it, says Hartford. The law firm gets to decide how to proceed and has 30 days to act on the notification, he says.
“Many of the steps people are taking when they administer an estate to look for a missing will are not done with any expectation they can find something. They are really done so they can prove to a court that they tried. There is not really any comprehensive system in place that allows the wills to be found,” he says.
He says his background as a lawyer has helped him design the system with a heavy focus on solicitor-client privilege and that his customers — law firms — had input in the design process.
Hartford says the company uses servers that have passed cybersecurity screenings and are used by banks and governments in facilities that have multi-factor authentication, encryption, CTV, card key access and security personnel.
One of the perks of using the system is that, when a lawyer retires, they can easily transfer their files to another lawyer in the system, similar to how a bank e-transfer might have both parties agree to exchange money.
“A lot of firms are still using paper systems or Excel spreadsheets,” he says. “There’s a massive problem where retiring lawyers are looking to give wills to another firm and it can be quite burdensome to inherit 10 bankers boxes of documents. . . . You might have a really good handle on wills you’ve created, but if you have 5,000 wills from some lawyer that retired 10 years ago, you’re not as comfortable you know all the file names.”
Law firms can officially start using the system on May 27, although up to 20,000 wills will already be in the system. NoticeConnect already counts about 650 law firms as customers, after the court decided in 2017 it could be used for advertising to creditors.
Unlike Will Check, which is run by the County of Carleton Law Association library, this registry will be set up so that individuals can also register.
“If you have a will you get to have a say about how your assets are distributed: Who do they go to? What goes to your children? It can be very important if somebody owns a business or has a blended family. Things get complicated. If someone can’t find a will — your parents have mentioned it, referred to it, but they pass away and you can’t find it — there is a legal presumption that the person who made the will must have destroyed it and revoked it,” says Hartford. “The long and short of it is the people who they want to receive the assets of their estate may very well not get them.
"A lot of money is spent making sure lawyers are doing these things correctly, but it’s all for naught if you can’t find the document.”