Implications of Serious Probate Registry Delays
At the start of 2019, a new £1bn online service was unveiled by the government. This was aimed at streamlining the probate application process and reducing stress on families.
But not everything has gone to plan. Bereaved families have suffered lengthy delays, leaving them in financial limbo.
Reports of up to six weeks at HMRC before a receipted IHT421 is issued. And between five and 12 weeks at the Probate Registry between grant applications submissions and the issue of grant of representation.
A process that traditionally took between two and six weeks is now taking between five and 18 weeks. At the beginning of May, there was a reported backlog of c30,000 to 35,000 applications.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned intervention, seems to have created more issues than it has solved. But what has gone wrong?
Causes of the Delay
Several smaller issues seem to have created the ‘perfect storm’:
1. IT issues
Perhaps the most obvious. Implementation of the new system hasn’t gone smoothly. The HM Courts and Tribunals Service has stated that glitches in the system are a major cause of the delays.
2. Future rise in probate fees
There has been a rush of probate grant applications before a rise in probate fees comes into play later this year. The rises are significant, increasing from £215 for personal applications or £155 from a solicitor, up to a maximum of £6,000.
The sudden increase in applications has put a system that is already struggling under more strain.
3. Changes to the probate registry
It has been announced that from next year probate registries will be centralised in Birmingham with an administrative office in Stoke on Trent. The new computer system alongside this centralisation and scaling back of staff will inevitably lead to a decrease in civil servants working on probate issues.
This will remove expertise from the role. Civil servants currently manage applications manually looking for fakes and alterations and ensure that Wills meet legal requirements. This skill will be lost as the new systems come into play and could add to the delays.
This is also being affected by personnel being diverted on Brexit related projects.
Effect of the Delay
It’s fair to say the effect has been significant – for legal professionals and beneficiaries:
1. Financial limbo
Huge delays are leaving bereaved families in limbo. They are unable to do anything with property and assets of the estate and have little or no information about what is happening. Naturally, this increase stress and anxiety at what is already a difficult time.
2. Property sales
Property sales cannot progress to exchange until a grant of representation has been received. Property sales are themselves subject to extended delay and potential collapse.
Property sales are often relied upon to meet the demands of inheritance tax liability (IHT). Failure to pay in the allotted time can lead to interest penalties of up to 100% of the tax due in the most extreme cases.
3. Outstanding debts
Estate funds cannot be accessed until the grant of representation has been issued. Long delays will leave creditors waiting for payment and put additional stress on families.
What is being done?
Obviously, this issue is being taken seriously. Internationally renowned inheritance planning charity STEP, recently met with the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to discuss the disruptions.
After expressing disappointment in the implementation of the new system and in the inability to deal with a spike in applications STEP made several recommendations.
They suggested that the fee implementation date should be changed to the date of death for applications to help relieve pressure and help fix relations with the legal profession and grieving families.
They also provided feedback on errors in the new style grants that their members have received and suggested that an exact date for the fee rises should be set in stone to allow for proper planning.
Dealing with the issue head-on HMCTS has brought in 15-20 more people for the national office; a 10-15% increase in staff working on the backlogged applications. This appears to be working with them announcing that they issued 960 grants in a single day in May.
Applications are being dealt with in date order with the oldest being dealt with first.
The Probate Registry has committed to publishing regular bulletins to keep the public aware of developments and how they are progressing in solving these issues.
It’s clear that systems can save time and streamline processes when they work correctly. However, HMCTS has admitted that the new online system should not have been launched when other changes were taking place. No doubt time will tell whether the new digital system will ultimately be of benefit.
In the meantime, personal representatives and lawyers will need to do all they can to keep everyone involved up to date.
If you have been affected by probate registry delays or need advice or further information, please contact us. We’re here to help.
Please note that all views, comments or opinions expressed are for information only and do not constitute and should not be interpreted as being comprehensive or as giving legal advice. No one should seek to rely or act upon, or refrain from acting upon, the views, comments or opinions expressed herein without first obtaining specialist, professional or independent advice. While every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, Curtis Parkinson cannot be held liable for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.