$1.9-million estate goes unclaimed in B.C.

Normally when I write about a multi-million-dollar estate, it’s in the context of an ugly fight between the beneficiaries of a wealthy person that has made the news or ended up in court. 

However, the B.C. Unclaimed Property Society  recently made a different kind of news when it announced that the largest unclaimed account in the province is a $1.9-million estate whose legal heirs are unaware of its existence. 

Formed in 2003, the provincial agency is the legal custodian of unclaimed funds received from the courts, credit unions, insurance firms, companies and government sources. 

As part of its mandate, the BCUPS also works to put money back in the hands of its legitimate owners, and runs a free searchable online database for members of the public to search listings of its unclaimed accounts. 

In 2021, the agency returned more than $700,000 to verified claimants, but that amount was vastly outstripped by the $4 million in fresh unclaimed property it received the same year from account holders. 

Back in 2012, Ontario’s then-Liberal provincial government launched a public consultation with a view to creating its own Unclaimed Property Program, including a proposal for a centralized, publicly-accessible registry in the mould of the B.C. website. However, no legislation was ever forthcoming, and Ontarians have had to do without such an aid for tracking inactive accounts and unclaimed estates. 

After more years than I care to admit in practice as a trusts and estates lawyer, I’ve seen more than my fair share of families torn apart by disputes over assets left behind by a deceased loved one – often involving surprisingly small amounts of money. 

As upsetting as it is to see all that time and money wasted in estate litigation, there is something almost as tragic about a person’s hard-earned money sitting in a government account, awaiting a claim (that may never arrive) from its rightful owner. 

Luckily, there are steps you can take to ensure that your estate does not meet the same fate: 

First, and most importantly, get a will in place – preferably one drafted by an experienced trusts and estate lawyer who can ensure that the document is properly executed and accurately reflects your wishes. 

Once you have a will drafted, it’s a good idea to communicate with beneficiaries about the basic terms of your estate, so that they know what to expect once it kicks in. 

The next step is to revisit your choices every few years, to make sure the beneficiaries you named first time around still make sense after the passage of some time. 

Major life events – think the birth of a child, marriage, divorce, or a major change in net worth – should also prompt a fresh look at your estate plan. 

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