UK government drops probate fee increase

Daniel NesbittSTEP is delighted and relieved by the news that the proposed increase in probate fees in England and Wales has been dropped.

News reports emerged early on Saturday morning (12 October 2019), to the relief of practitioners and others in the industry.

‘STEP welcomes the news that the government has decided to scrap the proposed increase in probate fees,’ STEP Technical Counsel Emily Deane TEP said. ‘This follows many months of work by STEP and many others to highlight the unfairness of the proposed increase, which amounted to a stealth tax on the bereaved. This at last brings an end to the uncertainty and worry that these proposals have caused to grieving families.’

The controversial proposals to charge higher fees emerged in November 2018. An estate of GBP300,001 – 500,000 would have had to pay GBP750, a 249 per cent increase from the current GBP215 flat fee, while the largest estates of GBP2 million and over, would have been charged as much as GBP6,000; an extraordinary 2,691 per cent rise.

The government’s reasoning behind the increase was that the probate system should fund improvements to the courts service.

The increase mooted in November 2018 was essentially a re-hash of a proposal first put forward in February 2016, which had suggested even higher fees. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had issued a consultation paper increasing fees for estates of over GBP50,000 with a banded fee structure depending on the estate value. Larger estates faced a 13,000 per cent rise to GBP20,000.

STEP strongly opposed the proposed fees on the basis that they would be completely disproportionate to the service provided by the probate court, and would effectively be a new tax on bereaved families (consultation paper pdf).

STEP raised concerns on the grounds of fairness, practicality and legality, in particular that the measures being introduced via the Draft Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2017 might be ultra vires, i.e. beyond the power of the order. We obtained a legal opinion from leading expert in public law, Richard Drabble QC, who confirmed that ‘the proposed Order would be outside the powers of the enabling Act’ (read blog).

Many other responses echoed STEP’s views, with over 97 per cent of respondents opposing the proposals.

The House of Commons Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (SI) also questioned the legality of the proposals, given that the new ‘fees’ looked very like taxes.

Despite the opposition, the Probate Fees Order was pushed forward, and was only dropped when the then Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017. The proposals then re-emerged in November 2018 and while the headline charges were less extortionate than were previously proposed, the same concerns about process and fairness remained.  It remains to be seen whether these proposals will re-emerge, for a third time, at some future point. If probate fee reform does rear its head again, we hope it will be done in a fairer and more transparent way, with greater consideration for bereaved families.

Daniel Nesbitt, Policy Executive, STEP

Will-writing reforms proposed

Signing Last Will and TestamentThe Law Commission of England and Wales is holding a public consultation on reform of the law of wills. The current law, largely derived from the Wills Act 1837, is understandably antiquated and requires an overhaul. The Commission notes that 40 per cent of people in England and Wales die without leaving a valid will, which often results in application of the unfavourable laws of intestacy.

Background

Significant changes in society, technology and medicine have prompted the Commission to review the wills law. Some of these factors include:

• the ageing population;
• the greater incidence of dementia;
• the evolution of the medical understanding of disorders, diseases and conditions that could affect a person’s capacity to make a will;
• the emergence of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology;
• changing patterns of family life – for example, more cohabiting couples and more people having second families; and
• with more people having substantial amounts of property, clarity about what happens to it after death being more important than ever.

Objectives

The Commission’s objective is to modernise and improve the current, archaic wills law. Some of the key focus areas include:

More flexibility: This would enable courts, when it is clear what the deceased wanted or intended, to dispense with the formalities of a will. If a particular formality, such as having two witnesses sign the will, had been overlooked or incorrectly administered, new ‘dispensing powers’ would enable the court to validate the will.
Capacity review: It may be necessary to improve the test for capacity to reflect the modern understanding of medical conditions such as dementia. This review could result in the introduction of a new test specifically linked to these conditions, where the testator makes a will with specific new guidance and support.
Statutory guidance: It may be necessary to introduce statutory guidance for doctors and other professionals when assessing whether or not a person has the required mental capacity to make a will. This could reduce the need for lengthy, costly litigation.
Undue influence: New rules should be considered to protect testators from being unduly influenced by another person. In particular, elderly and vulnerable testators should be better protected from fraud.
Testamentary capacity: Lowering the age at which a will can be made from 18 years old to 16. A child of 16 or 17 might have significant assets that he or she may not want to pass to an estranged parent under the rules of intestacy.
Electronic wills: It may be necessary to review how technology can be adapted in relation to making a will; it may become easier, cheaper and more convenient to a testator if they are able to do so electronically, though some practical challenges will need to be considered.
Ademption: The Commission would like to encourage discussions as to whether or not the ademption rules need to be reviewed. The rules could be improved to better align the testator’s wishes and intentions with the operation of the law.

Consultation events

STEP is working closely with the Law Commission and the Association of Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS) on this consultation project. STEP is hosting free consultation events in London, Newcastle and Manchester, and STEP members are invited to provide feedback to Commission representatives.

Consultation event schedule:

London, 13 Sep
Newcastle, 18 Sep
Manchester, 18 Oct

The consultation closes on 10 November 2017, and the Commission’s conclusions, along with its final recommendations and a draft Bill, are expected to be published in early 2018.

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel