A Hands-On Guide for the
First (or Second) Time Executor



About This Guide

Based upon our numerous interactions with our clients and the questions they ask us, we’ve provided five sections within this guide to help you with the executor role research journey and help answer some of the questions you may have:

  1. The Role of an Executor
  1. Checklist of Executor Tasks
  1. What Is Probate?
  1. What Happens if There Is No Will?
  1. What Happens if I Can’t Find the Original Will?


Being Named Executor

There may be a time in the future when someone close to you, perhaps a parent, a sister or brother, an uncle, or even a close friend, asks you to be their executor.

Being named as an executor could be a great honor and an opportunity to help a good friend or loved one, perhapssomeone who has been there for you in times of need.

First Time Executor, portrait of bearded adult man talking to his older man in kitchen lit by sunlight

In the event you have already been appointed as executor, you may have many questions regarding your duties and responsibilities.

In many cases, people don’t think about what’s involved in being an executor, until after the testator has recently passed away, which can add complexity to an already emotional and challenging time for the executor.

Accepting the Role as Executor

Accepting the role as an executor should include some reflection, research, and analysis to ensure that the role is a fit for you.

In addition to following the deceased (testator) instructions, you will also need to safeguard the assets of the estate.

This may also be a good time to seek the advice of a lawyer and other relevant professionals.

The deceased has trusted you to follow the directions detailed within the will and to fulfil the needs of the will’s beneficiaries, according to the will’s instructions and in accordance with Ontario law.

An executor usually has these traits and skills:

  • They are responsible. Executors understand that they can’t do this all on their own. They will need to know when to ask for help from professionals, including an accountant, lawyer, and others.

As an executor, they have the authority and permission to hire professionals, including lawyers, accountants, and financial planners.

They will need to be transparent, keep detailed records, correspond with all stakeholders, including creditors and beneficiaries. Among other duties, they will identify and keep track of the testator’s assets.

  • Ability to do the work required. Acting as an executor can be a time-intensive responsibility, and there are deadlines. Among other responsibilities, the role involves the identification, valuing, securing, and distribution of the testator’s assets.

An executor needs to have the time and competency to fulfill this role. The executor must expect and be prepared for the unexpected.

First Time Executor, Reading a book with magnifying glass

In addition to numerous legal requirements, and tax returns, there are many forms and administrative documents which will need the executor’s attention along with all necessary communication to the will’s stakeholders, including interaction and communication with creditors, beneficiaries, and family members.

  • The executor has high integrity and trustworthiness. The testator has put their trust in this individual as executor and is entrusting them with their instructions and wishes, in compliance with the law. The executor is expected to act on the testator’s behalf, and in the beneficiaries’ best interests.
  • They need to be unbiassed, independent and impartial. They can identify conflicts of interest and act upon the wishes of the testator with the highest integrity

As a result of being asked to be executor, you may have many questions in mind, including:

  • Should I say yes or no right away?
  • Am I qualified?
  • What is the role of an executor? And what would I do next?
  • What will other family members think?
  • Will my role as executor damage my family relationships?
  • Am I at risk? Will I be sued by beneficiaries? Will they be angry at me? Do they need to approve my decisions?
  • How much time will this take? Will I be paid for my time and expenses? Do the beneficiaries need to approve my expenses and time?
  • Who can help me?
  • Is there a will?
  • Where is the will?
  • What is probate?

Talking to the Testator While They Are Still Alive

First Time Executor. Elderly woman sitting at table with her grown up daughter, looking at a computer laptop screen.

These are all pertinent and applicable questions. If possible, many of these questions should be asked of the testator while they are still alive, especially the location of the will, inventory of assets, their financial contact information, along with the testator’s lawyer and accountant names and contact information.

This guide will highlight important items which will try to address the many executor role and estate administration procedures.

Will Location

One of the first things you will do as an executor is to locate the will and accompanying documents.

Will you be able to locate these documents when needed? If the testator lives alone, do you have a key(s) to their home? If they have a spouse or children, are they aware that you are executor, and they are available to support you when the time arises?

What Do We Do Next?

One of the first questions we receive from our clients when they have been asked to be an executor is usually “What do we do next’’?

Receiving counsel, guidance, and direction, based upon a client’s unique circumstances can often be very overwhelming, which leads us to one of the last questions asked at the end of a first client meetings, which is “Is there some type of guide to help us through the executor role”?

This guide is written for those individuals who have been named as an executor and are uncertain what to do next or who can help them with this role.

Guide Objective

First Time Executor. Graphic of a laptop keyboard, glasses and a computer keyboard with the word guidelines

Our objective with this guide is to help you with some of these questions.

In addition, we will also focus on some of the most often asked questions that our clients have requested of us and provide you with possible next steps and insights about being an executor of an estate.

In advance of passing away, a loved one can take many proactive measures to prepare their will.

Although the named executor can perform many of these steps in advance with the living testator prior to their death, this guide will focus mostly on ‘after testator death’ activities.

Ask for Help

The executor is not expected to do the legal work, those functions are the responsibility of a lawyer and paid by the estate.

Many executors are not aware that they are permitted to talk to and receive assistance from advisory professionals related to the estate, including lawyers and accountants, and other professionals.

First Time Executor. Close up white reference book separated by many multi colour sticky notes tabs

In this brief guide, we have attempted to provide as much information as possible. However, it is difficult to cover all the topics and information related to being an executor.

If you need additional or expanded information related to these topics, we have included a robust collection of source materials and link sources at the end of our guide within the Sources and Additional Information section, or alternatively you can always contact us at our office for further information or clarification.


A Hands-On Guide for the First (or Second) Time Executor


1. The Role of an Executor

If you have been asked to be the executor (also known as Estate Trustee) of a will you should be aware of the responsibilities and duties of this role prior to accepting.

Executor Definition

The role of an executor can be best defined as the individual who has been named by the deceased (also known as decedent or testator) in a will. They are responsible for following the instructions left by the testator, in their will.

First Time Executor.A young man is sitting in an office, talking on the phone and working with documents.

When acting as the executor, you will need to act and perform this role with the highest competence and integrity.

The Ontario courts and the beneficiaries will need to be satisfied that the estate has been administered appropriately and accurately.

Can the Executor Also Be a Beneficiary?

Another question we often answer is “Can the executor or estate trustee be a beneficiary?” The answer is “yes”.

The living spouse of the deceased is often named as the executor, and the deceased’s children are also often named as an executor, in most cases they are often also beneficiaries.

What’s the Difference Between an Estate Trustee and an Executor?

  • For the purposes of a deceased’s will in Ontario, the two terms are very similar, and the terms often interchanged.
  • In Ontario the term executor is also called the ‘estate trustee’, most often by the courts when the will is being probated.
  • The courts don’t usually refer to the term ‘executor’, the courts usually use the term ‘estate trustee’.
  • For the most part, wills in Ontario don’t usually use the term ‘estate trustee’, unless there are more complex trusts set up in the will.
  • Many wills in Ontario still use or have used the terms “Executor, ‘Executrix’, ‘Executors’ or Trustee’. Because the term is gender neutral, the term ‘estate trustee’ may be used more frequently in wills today.

The estate trustee is either named in the will or appointed by the court if the deceased did not have a will. As specifically detailed by the Ontario Government, the estate trustee is responsible for:

  1. Winding up the affairs of the deceased
  2. Paying taxes, bills, and any other debts
  3. Collecting the estate assets and distributing the residue of the estate to those who are entitled to it (for example, the remainder after all liabilities are paid)

A person is not obligated to act as an executor or estate trustee. You may be ineligible to be ‘Estate Trustee’ without a will if you have claims against the estate, as this would be considered a ‘conflict of interest’.

There are numerous items that need attending to, these are some of the first things you should take care of:

Initial Checklist

  • Making funeral arrangements and approve organ donation, if requested
  • Obtain a death certificate
  • Perform a detailed inventory and list of all assets and liabilities, including real estate and cash. Include testators bank accounts, life insurance, financial interests in estates or trusts and investments. Include deposit accounts and cash available at banks, credit unions, trusts, and other financial institutions
  • Secure all assets, ensure they are safe. Identify and protect the deceased’s accounts and get them under executor control
  • Arrange for asset valuations and appraisal
  • Administration and management of the estate
  • Locate and review the will (one of the topics to discuss with the testator before they die, especially funeral arrangements). Knowing the location of the will and the financial affairs of the deceased beforehand is essential
  • Retain a lawyer, who can counsel you with the executor role, and let you know if the will needs to be probated. If a will doesn’t exist, they can help you apply for the ‘Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee Without a Will’
  • Continue paying the deceased bills
  • Ensuring that the deceased liabilities are paid out, including taxes, debt, and creditor obligations
  • The distribution of the residue (after liabilities) of the estate to the beneficiaries and those who have entitlements from the estateFirst Time Executor. Asian senior couple discuss their wills with their executor on their coach in there home.
  • Keep detailed records, including financial records, copies of all receipts, communications with all estate stakeholders, the time/record of the time you spent administering the estate
  • Review and gain a thorough understanding of the will and the testators wishes and instructions. The will outlines the responsibilities that the testator has requested of the executor
  • Estate Bank Account. For the purposes of estate administration and distribution, open a new ‘estate bank account’ for estate and asset proceeds
  • Possible temporary care of children and pets
  • Help manage family disputes related to the estate
  • Locating, identifying, securing, appraising, and protecting estate assets (real estate, banking, investments, life insurance). Taking control and possession of those assets and preserve them for distribution
  • Review insurance and ensure estate assets are covered by insurance (fire, perils)
  • Locating, notification of beneficiaries. Meeting with family and beneficiaries, when required
  • Cancel newspaper and magazine deliveries etc. , or other deliveries to the home. Which also limits any unwanted attention that the home is no longer lived in or unattended to
  • Go to the post office and re-direct the deceased mail

There are other executor role duties and responsibilities, which we will outline in the ‘Checklist of Executor Tasks’ section, however these are the initial steps you need to attend to immediately.

The executor is not expected to do the legal work, those functions are the responsibility of the lawyer and paid by the estate.

If the person who has been named as executor or estate trustee declines or cannot act, then the beneficiaries of the estate may nominate a person to act as an estate trustee.

A court appointment of an executor will be required in one of the following circumstances:

  • Deceased left no will;
  • The will doesn’t name an executor or trustee;
  • The executor’s appointment is being challenged – in such instance, the Court may appoint an Estate Trustee during litigation

Compensation for the Executor Role

First Time Executor. image of a man's hands with a pen signing a document on a desk.

Depending upon the complexity of the will and the amount of time and work performed by the executor, the executor may be entitled to compensation.

Estate Value

The value of the estate is taken into consideration when determining the executor compensation.

If not detailed in the will, your lawyer can help you understand the fee structure for executors, based on previous executor fees which have been approved by Ontario courts.

Fees are based approximately upon the deceased estate value and can range between 3-5% of the gross value of the estate.

In instances where trusts are established, the executor may also be entitled to charge an annual management fee.

The Trustees Act in Ontario allows for executor compensation. “A trustee, guardian or personal representative is entitled to such fair and reasonable allowance for the care, pains and trouble, and the time expended in and about the estate, as may be allowed by a judge of the Superior Court of Justice.” ~ Ontario Trustee Act

Beneficiary Approval

The act is not specific as to how compensation is calculated.

Ultimately, the executor will have to receive the beneficiaries’ approval for the compensation they claim. Alternatively, if the beneficiaries and executor cannot agree on what is fair compensation, the executor can bring an application before the Court, referred to as “Passing Accounts”, to have the Court decide what compensation the executor is entitled to.


2. Checklist of Executor Tasks

The executor role will need time, focus and administration efforts, including detailed record keeping.

This work effort will also include communication, diligence, and sound decision-making based upon the testator’s instructions in the will and to also satisfy the creditors, beneficiaries, and the courts, if necessary.

This section will include a detailed checklist for the executor, after the death of the testator.

First Time Executor. An image of a checklist tasks to complete. A black pen on notepad with headline 'To Do List' and list of numbers 1 through 5 on computer laptop, on a desk

Checklists Are Unique

Not all executor check lists are the equal, every situation is different, so your specific check list requirements may differ from the ones we have provided, that being said, we are confident that this Executor Supplemental Checklist will be of some value for the role you are about to provide.

This list may also provide more ‘actionable items’ than you may encounter or need to perform, and it may not be all encompassing either.

Our goal is to provide you with the most common areas to ’check-off’, and that you should consider for your executor role.

These are helpful next steps once you have reviewed the ‘Initial Steps’ in ‘The Role of an Executor’ section.

This checklist works hand in hand with Initial Checklist in the first section, many of the items in the Executor Supplemental Checklist could be included in the Initial Checklist, every situation varies and is unique.

Executor Supplemental Checklist:

  • If the executor has a key to the deceased home, this is a list of helpful documents to look for and to provide to your lawyer:
    • Copy of the will and any notes related to the will
    • Location and key(s) to a Safety Deposit Box(s)
    • Lawyers name who prepared the will
    • Inventory list of all the deceased assets, including cash, securities, real estate/property deeds, important or valuable papers, jewellery
    • Documents and materials related to funeral arrangements
    • Documents and materials related to income tax, accountants name and contact details, including tax returns, employment contracts, pay stubs, Notice of Assessments, etc.
    • Personal notes about distribution of personal items or belongings
    • Financial details, investment documentation
    • Real estate details, mortgage, condo, or real estate investment documentation
    • Debt details, banking statement, credit card statements.
    • Cancel credits cards.
    • Return important documents or obtain instructions for passport, drivers license, health cards marriage documents etc.
    • Technology, including tablet computers, desktop computers, cell phones, laptops, password details etc. Decide what to do with the deceased’s technology
    • Pension details and documentation. Ensure that pension and income support payments have been stopped
    • Current and previous years income tax returns need to be submitted
    • Testator instructions for personal belongings, including household goods, furniture, artwork, any collections, automobiles. Etc. These items will need to be valuated and have adequate insurance during the executor period until closing
  • If applicable, contact employer to determine any outstanding salary or bonuses, death benefits, or other amounts owing
  • Contact your essential resources, lawyer, accountant, funeral home, bank (new estate administration bank account) real estate agent, if necessary, etc.
  • Contact Veteran Affairs, if deceased was a veteran, validate any potential death benefits
  • Determine any business interests and outstanding contract obligations or assets. Determine whether the business should be closed or kept in business
  • Contact newspapers or other avenues to advise potential creditors of the testator’s passing
  • Prepare a contact and notification list for all relevant stakeholders, including testators’:
    • financial contacts
    • wealth advisor
    • lawyers
    • accountants/bookkeepers/tax contact
  • Provide beneficiaries a copy of the will or in situations where a specific bequest was made, provide beneficiaries a copy of the excerpt from the will detailing what gift was left to them
  • Contact Government of Canada or pension provider(s) to cancel pension benefits and apply for death benefits
  • Cancel other subscriptions or accounts, including cable, mobile phone, land line, internet, club memberships etc., if not terminated in the previous Initial Checklist in section one
  • Investigate and determine the deceased ‘digital assets, including social media, websites, and email addresses, fulfill the deceased instructions with these accounts. Close accounts if applicable.

Estate Administration and Distribution Checklist

First Time Executor. An executor diligently researching and working through her executorship tasks. At a desk with a clipboard and a pen, next to het laptop computer.

The administration and distribution of an estate can take some time to conclude.  In most cases, a simple estate can take a year or two to close, and more complex estates 2 years or more.

The Estate Administration and Distribution Checklist is also closely integrated with the Initial Checklist and Executor Supplemental Checklists:

  • In-depth reviewing of the will with your lawyer, accountant, or other advisory professional
  • Discuss with your lawyer or accountant how to approach the closing of accounts, asset transfers or disbursements related to the estate, to the new ‘estate bank account’
  • Determine if a certificate of appointment is required (probate)
  • Pay out all the estate’s debts. Ensure you record these transactions and receive detailed records and receipts
  • Tax returns. Make certain a tax return is filed for any previous tax years that are outstanding, and the current year. Determine if any tax clearances certificates are required from Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). An accountant may be of assistance with these matters
  • Prior to preparing for final distribution of the estate, ensure all obligations to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) are fulfilled
  • There may be circumstances when the beneficiaries are entitled to an ‘interim’ distribution of funds. This is an area where your lawyer and accountant will be of high value and importance

There is an ‘order of operations’ related to the distribution of an estate’s proceeds, in most cases the funeral fees are paid first, then government (federal first, then provincial) taxes gets paid next, then the creditors are paid and then the beneficiaries are paid out.

The executor is responsible for this ‘order of operations’ distribution and administration. If an ‘interim’ payment is required, the executor will need to assess and validate the request to ensure the order of payment operations is completely fulfilled and paid out

  • Distribute assets to beneficiaries
  • Distribute personal items in accordance with the instructions in the will
  • Create and establish any trusts in accordance with the instructions in the will
  • Prepare final account for the beneficiaries, including an account of all estate’s assets, liabilities, and expenses. Present the final account to the beneficiaries. If applicable, submit the account to the court for court approval
  • Closing Costs and Final Distribution. Closing of all the estate’s accounts upon final completion


3. What Is Probate?

Probate is one of the terms we get the most questions about. In fact, probate isn’t so much a place or event, it’s something that needs to be performed in accordance with the Succession Law Reform Act.

First Time Executor. What is probate? Last will and testament with pen near gavel on wooden table, closeup

In the past, Probate or Probating a will was called ‘Letters of Probate’.

Every province is different, we will be focusing on the laws relating to Probate in Ontario, however the logic is mostly the same across all the provinces.

The outcome of probating a will is the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment.

Probate Process

Essentially, probating a will is the process of proving a will and certifying the executor as the Court appointed individual with the authority to take control of the testator’s assets.

Probate is not, generally, the process by which an executor is appointed to administer an estate. The authority to administer an estate is granted to the executor, by the testator, through naming the executor in that role, within their will.

Probate is required in some instances, where the estate contains assets that require a “certification” from the Court, in order for the executor to take control of, transfer and/or sell those assets. To be clear, not all estates need to go through probate.

Court Validation

Notwithstanding that probate may not always be required, in some cases, an executor may still probate the will to ensure that the deceased’s will is validated by the court as the final version and the last wishes of the testator. This is because once a Will is probated, the will is recognized by the Court as the valid last will of the testator and unless there are extenuating circumstances to the contrary, the will cannot, usually, be over-turned once it has undergone probate.

Usually, an executor or estate trustee will work with a lawyer with the probate procedures and processes.

Certificate of Appointment

A clarification about the Certificate of Appointment. As mentioned earlier, the outcome of probate or ‘probating an estate’ is a Certificate of Appointment. The Certificate of Appointment is usually a one-page document which the Ontario Superior Court provides, which certifies the appointment of the executor.

Obtaining a Certificate of Appointment is not, generally, the process for appointing an executor. Where there is a will, the executor’s appointment comes from the will. In instances where there is no will, an executor may be appointed via applying for a Certificate of Appointment. 

A will must be probated if the deceased (testator) in one of two instances:

  1. The deceased owned real estate in Ontario at the time of their death, either in their name alone or held a tenants-in-common interest in the said real estate (subject to specific exclusions); or
  2. The deceased owned financial assets, including bank accounts and investments, that were in their name alone, did not have beneficiary designations attached to them and held a value over a certain threshold amount.

Land Registry Office

In the first instance, the executor may be required to obtain a Certificate of Appointment, as the Land Registry Office will generally not permit an executor to transfer or sell a Testator’s real estate, without first obtaining a Certificate of Appointment.

First Time Executor. Two court official reviewing probate and related documents at desk with official court gavel.

Bank or Investment Firm Requirements

In the second instance, the executor may be required to obtain a Certificate of Appointment to satisfy either the bank or investment firm, which currently holds the Testator’s financial assets, before they will hand over the money to the executor.

There are some exceptions to the scenarios above which may exempt an executor from needing to obtain a Certificate of Appointment. These exceptions should be assessed on a case-by-case basis by a lawyer.

Asset Valuation

Where a Certificate of Appointment is required, the executor must value the assets owned by the Testator, complete the necessary Court application documents, and pay estate administration tax on the value of the assets. Estate administration tax is equal to approximately 1.5% of the value of the assets.

Where a Certificate of Appointment is not required, no application to the Court is necessary and estate administration tax is not payable.

If the deceased doesn’t have a will or for some reason the executor can’t be found or is unable to perform the executor role, then the courts will need to appoint an estate trustee or administrator.

The probate application usually requires the following documents:

  • An original copy of the will
  • Will additions or supplements, explaining changes or revokes of a will
  • An affidavit of execution, signed by one of the witnesses of the will, attesting to being present and having witnessed the signing of the will
  • Proof of death. A copy of the death certificate

In addition to the application documents above, the following court forms will need to be completed:

  • Application Form 74A (Application for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee)
  • Affidavit of Service Form 74B (Affidavit of Service of Application for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee)
  • Affidavits, as required. Evidence that is required by legislation and the court rules
  • Draft Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee Form 74C
  • Other forms related to Bond or Renunciation
  • Consent to Applicant’s Appointment as Estate Trustee Form 74H, (needed where a person dies without a will and where there is a will, but the applicant is not named as estate trustee)

Assets which usually do not require probate include:

  • Jointly owned accounts
  • RRSP’s, TFSA’s, RRIF’s with a named person as a beneficiary
  • Insurance proceeds with a named person as a beneficiary
  • Inter vivo trusts. Assets in a trust which were created during the testator’s lifetime
  • Gifts made during the testator’s lifetime

An estate includes a person’s collective account of all their assets and liabilities, including their possessions and real estate at the time of their death.

The only person who has the legal authority to distribute or manage an estate in Ontario is the executor.

What Happens if a Will Is Not Probated?

If a will doesn’t meet the probate requirements criteria (see criteria in this section), there shouldn’t be any issues with not probating a will. However, some executors elect to probate a will to ensure that the will they are using is authorized by the courts as the final version.

Legal Liabilities

First Time Executor. A close up image in a reference manual of the text and term "The Question of Liability". Black lettering on a white paper page.

For wills that need to be probated, in addition to a serious legal liability for the executor, avoiding the probate process could also cause numerous administrative issues. In addition, the creditors and beneficiaries may take additional legal action for any errors or omissions.

Administrative Issues, Potential Beneficiary or Creditor Challenges

In accordance with Ontario law, executors must probate a will if the estate meets the criteria required for probate. In addition to legal issues, the executor will encounter numerous administrative issues and challenges, including:

  • The deceased’s financial institutions will most likely deny communications or access to funds
  • Pension companies will most likely deny communications or access to funds
  • Land title office will most likely deny the transfer of real estate

At a minimum, these institutions and companies will need proof and proper validation, including:

  • Death certificate
  • A will and proof of the will’s validity and version (difficult without probating the will)
  • Proof that you are the executor
  • All the documentation you provide is valid enough that they won’t be sued if anyone contests the will

Financial Institution Refusal

These institutions are risk averse and won’t risk transferring funds to the wrong person or accepting a version of a will that may be contested. A non-probated will has too many risks associated with it. Approved and probated documents (will) from provincial courts provide legal protection for these institutions. 


4. What Happens If There Is No Will?


If a person dies in Ontario without a will, Ontario law would declare them as ‘intestate’. Their estate may be distributed based upon the Succession Law Reform Act and provincial rules. This means that someone will need to apply to the Court to be appointed as the executor.

The court will need proof that no will exists. They will need to see ‘reasonable’ (and documented) searches for a will.

Will Registries

Unfortunately, there is no provincial central registry for a will in Ontario. This leaves the burden of ensuring the executor is aware of the existence of a will and its location, up to the testator.

We cannot stress this point enough, if your executor does not know that you have made a will and where it is, your estate could be processed on an intestacy basis.

Court Involvement

If a ‘will’ doesn’t exist, then the courts will need to get involved and the estate will be distributed in accordance with Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act.

The estate is defined by the assets and liabilities at the time of the testator’s death. The assets of the estate will be distributed based upon how they are owned.

First Time Executor. Modern probate courtroom viewed from the side, all setup and ready for the first case

Estate Trustee Appointment

In most cases someone will apply to the courts to ask for the authority to administer the estate (an estate trustee), usually someone who is a dependent upon the testator, someone who is owed money, or a relative. The applicant will need to apply to the courts, as detailed under Section #3, ‘What is Probate’.

Multiple Applicants or Dispute

If there are multiple applicants or a dispute, then the matter will be referred to by a judge who will determine the most appropriate person to act as estate trustee, usually the closest relative has the right to be executor or estate trustee. They are appointed by the courts with an application for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee Without a Will.

The courts and the Ontario government define an estate trustee as a person who is authorized and responsible for the affairs and possessions related to a deceased estate.

The estate trustee (often known as the executor) is the person who has been named in the will or has been appointed by the court when the deceased did not have a will. There are occasions when there are multiple trustees named in a will.

The role and responsibilities of the estate trustee includes the administration and management of the deceased last wishes as detailed in the terms of their last will and testament, (if a will exists), and in accordance with the laws of Ontario.

5. What Happens if I Can’t Find the Original Will?

Searching for the Will

When a will is prepared, the testator can either retain the original signed will themselves or ask their lawyer to retain the original copy.

In either case, the lawyer should provide a copy of the will to the testator, and in instances where the lawyer retains possession of the original signed will, provide a reporting letter confirming the location of the original will. This letter should be kept by the testator and the named executor should be given the name of the lawyer and the location of theses documents.

First Time Executor. Looking for a will in a very cluttered home office. Messy desk, unorganized file cabinets with drawers open.

Original or Previous Executor Family or Friends

Perhaps the executor named in the will has also passed away or is unavailable.

When the testator asks a trusted person to be their executor, the testator may have provided the details of the will’s location and the lawyer named who prepared the will to the original executor. Contacting the family of the previous or original executor and requesting them to check the executor’s files may assist in its location.

The location of the will, and the lawyer who prepared the will, should be given to the executor, (preferably in writing), to the executor.

Document Will Search Efforts

If a will is known to exist and the location is unknown, all efforts should be exhausted to locate the will.

These search efforts need to be documented, and the documentation provided to the court.

If the will cannot be found, but a copy is retained, the executor can apply to the court to have the court recognize the copy of the will, as the valid last will and testament. In such instance, the court will review evidence from friends, family and professionals and decide as to whether the copy of the last will, reflects the deceased last wishes.

Holographic Will

There may be instances when ‘proven’ handwritten documents are used, provided they are written in the deceased 100% actual handwriting and have been signed and dated by the deceased. These wills may be interpreted and considered as a ‘Holographic’ will.

Reasonable efforts and searches will need to be taken to ensure that no will exists. A lawyer can help with the searches and ‘reasonable effort’

First Time Executor. A large bank vault with walls of safety deposit boxes. An employee is opening a safety deposit box for an executor.

Other alternatives for locating a will may include:

  • Searching the deceased home. Desks, drawers, filing cabinets. Hiding in plain sight in a home office?
  • Check with property the deceased has owned, leased, or rented. Ask people associated with the deceased at these locations if they may know the locations or know someone who may know the location of the will
  • Safety deposit boxes
  • Deceased’s lawyer
  • Contact local lawyers. Lawyers may be able to check private or commercial registries, or court records or archives
  • Document your search activities, the courts may need them

Unsuccessful Will Search Efforts

First Time Executor. Home safe in a home office, on a shelf mid way up on a wall, beside other large vertical file folder boxes.

If the will can’t be found, or a ‘will’ doesn’t exist, then the next steps would be for a related individual to apply for a Certificate of Appointment (probate), to become appointed the executor of the estate, on an intestacy basis, under the ‘Succession Law Reform Act.’





We’ve covered a great deal of information over these five topics.

And as you can appreciate, there are many different facets, legal and financial hurdles, and unique circumstances that can make the role of an executor somewhat chaotic and overwhelming.

We structured this guide based upon the real-world experiences which we’ve had with our own clients and included additional supplemental research from other useful sources.

Most Challenging Questions

When our clients approach us for executor assistance, it’s usually soon after the death of a family member or close friend. The questions they are most challenged with are:

  • What does an executor do? What are their obligations, responsibilities?
  • What is probate? When is it required and if it is required, what happens?
  • What information do I need to gather up to probate a Will?
  • Is there a step-by-step guide on things we need to check off as executors?
  • What happens if I can’t find the original will or there is no Will?

Whether a family member or close friend has requested you to be their executor, you don’t have to go through this process on your own. And it’s probably not a good idea to be isolated with this role, especially if you are also grieving.

An estate allows you to utilize professional resources, like a lawyer, accountant, or financial advisor, etc. These resources can help guide (and help protect you) you through this challenging role.

We trust that this guide will provide some direction and value while performing this important role.

We’ve included one of our previous blog posts which may also be of interest to you.

‘Powers of Attorney and Wills: 8 Estate Planning Tips in a Post-Pandemic World’

If you would like additional information about Nichols Law, please visit our website.


Sources and Additional Information


Sources and links are provided for source credit and attribution, and for additional information purposes only. Nichols Law is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with any of the sources or links provided.


What Is Probate? Plus 15 Other Will and Probate Questions Answered, Sun Life

Estate Administration Tax, Ontario Government

Apply for Probate of an Estate, Ontario Government

Ontario Trustee Act, Government of Ontario

Law Society of Ontario, ‘Locating a Will, Legal File or Document’

Ontario Government, Administering Estates, Find a Will

RLB Chartered Professional Accountants, ‘5 Reasons You’ll Need Support As the Executor of a Will

National Bank, ‘What Does an Executor of Will or Estate Administrator Do?

Edward Jones, ‘What Does It Mean to Be an Executor?’

RBC Wealth Management, ‘What Is an Executor? Things You Need To Know’

Investopedia, ‘5 Things to Consider Before Becoming an Estate Executor

The Wall Street Journal, ‘Why You Should Write a Letter to Your Executor–And What to Say in It’

Ontario Government, ‘Apply for Probate of an Estate’

Ontario Government, Archives of Ontario, How to Find Wills in Court Records

Investopedia, ‘The Executor Checklist: 7 Tasks Before They Die’

Canada Today, ‘What Should I Say When Someone Asks the Most Dreaded Question in Personal Finance: Will You Be My Executor?’

CISION/CNW, CIBC, ‘CIBC Poll: 84% of Canadians Have Named a Family Member or Friend To Administer Their Estate’

Canadian Family Offices, ‘Five Mistakes To Avoid When Appointing an Executor for Your Estate’

MoneySense,  ‘What To Do if You Don’t Trust the Executor of a Will’

Toronto Star, ‘He Agreed to Be Executor of an Estate — It Cost Him Seven Years of His Life and $100,000’

Scotia Wealth Management, ‘Estate Planning Risk and Rewards’

IG Wealth Management, ‘5 Qualities of a Successful Executor’

Raymond James, ‘The Role of the Executor’

Manulife, ‘The Role of the Executor’

Scotia Wealth Management, ‘’10 Things to Prepare for as an Executor

Investopedia,  ‘The Executor Checklist: 7 Tasks Before They Die’

Financial Post, ‘Better Late Than Never, but Everyone Should Have a Will To Put Everyone’s Mind To Rest

Investopedia, ‘Estate Planning: 16 Things to Do Before You Die’,

Servus Credit Union, Executor Assistance Guide

Book, ‘Executor Help; How to Settle an Estate’ by David. E. Edet

Book, ‘The 50 Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes’, Jean Blacklock and Sarah Kruger

Book, ‘Estate Planning 101’, Vicki Cook and Amy Blacklock

Book, ‘The Canadian Guide to Will and Estate Planning’, Douglas Gray and John Budd

Book, ‘How Executors Avoid Personal Liability’, Lynne Butler