Progress on UK probate delays

Emily Deane TEPUpdated 2 December 2019: STEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) this week, together with The Law Society, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

HMTCS provided the following update on the Probate Service:

Timeframe

For personal applications HMCTS is now issuing grants in less than four weeks.

For professional applications grants are being issued within two to three weeks.

HMCTS issued 11,390 grants in the first two weeks of November.

HMCTS has identified that 16 per cent of stops are caused by a pending IHT421 and 11 per cent of stops are due to a missing death certificate.

The new online system will help to identify the reasons for other stops in due course.

Online system

HMCTS is promoting the use of its online system and is keen to see increased professional uptake. It is also looking at introducing a new paper form in the new year. Once introduced there will a transitional period to enable firms to implement.

The online service for Welsh applications will be implemented in the new year.

Customer Service

From 2 December 2019 the CTSC customer service centre will be open from 8am-8pm Monday-Friday and from 8am-2pm on Saturday.

If you continue to have issues with a probate application please contact HMCTS by email: probatefeedback@justice.gov.uk

Alternatively, contact STEP’s Policy Team and we will direct you to someone at CTSC who can assist.

STEP will continue to meet with HMCTS regularly next year to discuss future changes to the service and feedback from the industry.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

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

Online probate applications update – Oct 2019

Rita Bhargava TEPHM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) recently organised a focus group, attended by practitioners from across the industry and representatives of various professional bodies, as part of its ongoing changes to the rules and processes around probate applications in England and Wales.

As Deputy Chair of STEP’s England and Wales Regional Committee, I attended the meeting on behalf of STEP.

As part of the meeting, representatives of HMCTS confirmed that the new online probate application process was scheduled to go live today, 1 October 2019. At present the system will be unavailable for more complicated applications, for example where the deceased was domiciled outside the UK or where an executor has lost capacity.

Practitioners who do use the online system will benefit from increased transparency around the status of their application; with a dashboard function tracking the progress of an application and showing which stages it has completed.

During the meeting a number of other key points were raised that practitioners may find of interest:

  • All law firms will have to apply to use the new online service, with applications being approved by HMCTS.
  • Practitioners will still be able to make paper applications. There will not be a specific time advantage to using one method over the other, as both paper and online applications will be progressed under the same timeframes.
  • HMCTS representatives have provided the reassurance that as part of the new system the original will is still going be ‘forensically’ checked by two officials.
  • When an application is made for a grant, a sealed copy of the will won’t be provided unless specifically requested. This will incur an additional charge.
  • All paper applications must now be sent via recorded delivery.

STEP will continue to monitor the changes to the Probate Service (as well as the ongoing situation around probate fees), and will provide further updates where appropriate.

Rita Bhargava TEP is deputy chair of STEP’s England and Wales Regional Committee

EW probate delays: September update

Emily Deane TEPUpdate 21 November: HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has announced this week that all legal professionals’ probate calls have been centralised and are now dealt with by the Birmingham Courts and Tribunals Service Centre (CTSC). You will no longer be required to contact a local registry if you need an update on your client’s applications.

The CTSC will be able to confirm whether the application has been received, where the application is being processed, the current service level, when it expects the grant to be issued and whether a ‘stop’ is in place and the reason for it. HMCTS anticipates that the new process will allow the Registry staff resource to process your paper applications more efficiently.

The Probate CTSC helpline number is 0300 303 0648 and is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5pm.

Update 22 October: HMCTS has confirmed legal professionals and personal applicants will be able to call the Birmingham CTCS from 4 November for an update on any application in England and Wales, provided it has been uploaded to its system.

The CTSC will be able to confirm:

  • if the application has been received;
  • where it is being dealt with;
  • the current level of service in that registry;
  • when its expects the grant to be issued;
  • whether a ‘stop’ is in place.

This information will be passed to the registry which will contact the legal professional/applicant directly.

HMCTS hopes to have the staff resource to open the Birmingham CTCS Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm, and on Saturday mornings from 8am to 2pm.

Contact details for this service will be available shortly.

In the meantime, please email probatefeedback@justice.gov.uk for queries rather than contacting individual probate registries.

Update 10 October: STEP met HMCTS at its Birmingham office yesterday where a few key points were made:

  • HMCTS is now issuing almost 7,000 grants a week.
  • It is inputting information received within three days.
  • It has confirmed that the Birmingham CTCS office can be called for an update on any application in England and Wales. It has a proper telephony system, and an agent will always answer a call and have access to the central system.
  • If members use the new online service, they will be notified by email if there are any issues, rather than by post. This may accelerate the speed of their application moving forwards.
  • HMCTS hopes to have the staffing resources to open the Birmingham CTCS office on Saturdays from 8am-8pm shortly.

Original blog 10 September: STEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) this week, together with The Law Society, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and Solicitors for the Elderly, to obtain an update on the delays and disruption to the Probate Service in England and Wales.

HMCTS gave us the following update on work undertaken since our last meeting on 27 June.

Timescales

HMCTS is still receiving 700-800 applications a day from personal applicants and professional applicants.

It has processed 98,000 grants since April and has a backlog of applications from March.

It has increased staffing levels by 20 per cent.

It is striving to get back to its pre-March level of service, which was a 28-day turnaround for personal applicants and ten days for professional applicants.

It acknowledges that performance has not been acceptable but anticipates that delays will reduce over the coming weeks.

Stops/errors

HMCTS estimates that approximately 20 per cent of applications from professionals, and 25 per cent of personal applications need to be stopped for a variety of reasons. The most frequent problems are thought to be:

  • the IHT421 form has not yet been received;
  • not all executors have been accounted for;
  • the will has not been included;
  • names are spelt incorrectly; and
  • the forms have not been correctly signed.

The new online system (see below) will be able to more accurately identify the reasons for the stops and it is hoped this feedback will lead to fewer delays and a more streamlined process.

It is worth noting that when an application is stopped it takes some time for the registry to reconnect the paperwork. 

New system

The new online application system for professionals is due to be introduced by the end of October. Users will be able to register their organisation on the website, with no need for an invitation from the registry.

Each organisation will have a single login, to include all those using the service. Organisations will be able to suspend or terminate a person’s access if they are no longer using it.

Once registered, details of applications will be uploaded within 24 hours.

All of the main types of application will be available at launch, although some of the less frequently-used applications make take longer.

Key messages

HMCTS is encouraging registry staff to communicate via email, rather than post.

The digital pilot will be transferred in early October and launched by the end of the month.

HMCTS’ eventual aim is to digitally interact with HMRC on future applications, to reduce the delays and complications of paper trails.

The implementation of the new probate fee regime is not high on the political agenda, due to continued disruption and the prorogation of parliament.

HMCTS continues to apologise for poor service.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

What’s happening in England and Wales?

Denese MolyneuxMy tenure as Chair of STEP’s England and Wales Regional Committee began in January and I would like to thank Rita Bhargava TEP for being such a hard act to follow. January also heralded the arrival of STEP’s new Chief Executive, Mark Walley. Mark has been quick to get his feet under the table and has ambitions to move STEP forward while keeping the organisation true to both its mission and vision.

The last England and Wales committee meeting pinpointed the areas that the committee felt warranted the most attention: raising the profile of TEPs in the public eye; education, career development and networking; educating professionals; and influencing government/policymakers. We are working on a plan to support and input into further work in these areas over the next year.

As detailed in Rita Bhargava’s blog in December, much has been done in recent years to raise the profile of TEPs in the public eye.  STEP’s Communications Team continue their sterling work with the ‘Talk to a TEP’ campaign and public-facing website, advisingfamilies.org, which continues to receive over 1,000 TEP searches a month.

The mammoth job of upgrading the STEP website is underway. The update will include a new member area, and a full site redesign, which should lead to big improvements and help you find exactly what you are looking for. The new site should be with us by January 2020.

The probate fees issue rumbles on. Rita Bhargava and STEP’s Policy Team have been leading the charge. Despite their best efforts, the government was, until very recently, pushing ahead with the Order. With recent political events, however, this is all looking a little less certain than before, and seems unlikely to come in much before the end of the year, and there is some speculation that, due to its unpopularity, it might not happen at all…  You can keep up with developments on the STEP Blog as they happen.

The EU Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD) is under consultation by the Treasury.  It is to the credit of our technical and policy team that they have pulled together such a comprehensive response to this consultation, and in addition have organised two roundtables with a number of senior industry practitioners to discuss the impact of the Directive in the UK. Watch this space for updates as they happen.

A hearing for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inheritance and Intergenerational Fairness was attended by a delegation from STEP in April. This APPG has held a series of hearings, some of which have helped inform recent recommendations in this area from the Office of Tax Simplification (see blog). We are hoping for more fundamental changes in this area, however, and look forward to recommendations from the APPG later this year.

And our Professional Development Team has a number of plans for the next year, not least the introduction of more flexible diplomas, enabling practitioners to tailor their STEP Diploma to better suit their specialisms.

Since joining the England and Wales committee six years ago, I have been constantly in awe of the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, undertaken by committee members and the Head Office team, a fraction of which I have reported above. It is a pleasure and a privilege to work alongside so many dedicated professionals.

I look forward to updating you with further blog postings during my time as chair.

Denese Molyneux TEP, Chair, STEP England and Wales Regional Committee

EW to extend online probate service

Daniel NesbittThe online system for England and Wales probate applications is to be extended further, after a Statutory Instrument was laid before the House of Lords last week.

The Non-Contentious Probate (Amendment) Rules 2019 updates previous legislation to allow solicitors and probate practitioners to apply for grants of probate without an invitation from a registry. It also modernises certain definitions, and corrects minor errors, in the Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987.

As the legislation is a negative instrument, no vote has been scheduled to take place in parliament, so unless a motion to stop it is tabled within 40 days, it will automatically become law, and is due to come into force on 1 October 2019.

The full text of the Statutory Instrument, along with further explanatory information, can be found here: The Non-Contentious Probate (Amendment) Rules 2019 (PDF) .

The changes are unrelated to the government’s Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018, which has still not been scheduled for a final vote in the House of Commons.

 

Daniel Nesbitt, Policy Executive, STEP

EW probate delays and disruption: an update

Emily Deane TEPSTEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) this week, together with The Law Society and Solicitors for the Elderly, to obtain an update on the delays and disruption to the Probate Service in England and Wales.

HMCTS gave us the following update on work undertaken since our last meeting on 14 May:

  • It has taken on 30 new staff since the transfer to the new system.
  • It currently has 180 employees working across the Probate Service.
  • It has recruited additional legal advisors with probate experience.
  • The registry with the most significant backlog is Winchester, which is sharing its work with other registries.
  • HMCTS is issuing approximately 20,000 grants a month, of which 12-13,000 are from practitioners
  • It is dealing with grants in date order, oldest first.
  • It does not prioritise grants according to urgency, and will not deal with applications more quickly by request.
  • It is entering caveats into the system on the day of receipt.
  • It will not refund probate fees due to delay.
  • It will issue grants of probate in approximately six to eight weeks.

STEP’s request for waived interest, or longer timeframe

STEP is aware that the delays are making it difficult for members to pay IHT on estates, since they cannot gain access to funds until the grants have been issued.

STEP has asked HMCTS to consult with HMRC on this issue, to see if it will waive the interest accrued on outstanding IHT, or permit a longer timeframe for paying by instalments. We stressed that this would help ease some of the time pressure and negligence concerns of our members, and generate some much-needed goodwill.

HMCTS anticipates that once its new digital system is up and running, there will be less scope for administrative and human error. Users will be able to track applications and make corrections online.

It will continue to accept paper applications for those less able to deal with applying online.

  • HMCTS is holding a webinar to demonstrate the new online system for professional users on 4 July.

STEP will be meeting HMCTS again in August for a further briefing.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

OTS report supports STEP’s calls for simplification

Simon HodgesThe UK Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) has published its first report of its review into inheritance tax (IHT).  The report, in which STEP is widely quoted, finds that the process for completing IHT forms is too complex and old fashioned, and that too many people are having to fill them in unnecessarily.

The OTS is undertaking this two-part review of IHT in response to the request from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in January 2018. Since the review was announced, STEP has been in regular contact with the OTS. STEP’s response to the consultation was one of more than 3,500 to be submitted to the OTS, with the overwhelming majority seemingly negative about the IHT process.

The report concentrates on the concerns and administrative issues facing the public and professional advisors when confronted with the IHT process and related forms. It includes a number of positive recommendations, such as potentially reducing or removing the requirement to submit forms for smaller or simpler estates, especially where there is no tax to pay; having standardised requirements; and automating the system by bringing it online.

STEP has long argued that the IHT system is too complex, and that any moves to simplify the process, particularly through the implementation of a digital system, will be beneficial for bereaved families.

The Chancellor will now review the OTS recommendations before deciding whether to implement or ignore them. The key recommendation from the OTS, that ‘The government should implement a fully integrated digital system for inheritance tax, ideally including the ability to complete and submit a probate application,’ will be the mostly keenly watched, not least by STEP members.

As the report notes, inheritance tax and probate are closely linked, so it is timely that the OTS recommends that HMRC and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) liaise on streamlining the payment and probate process. As has been widely reported, legislation currently before the UK parliament would see a radical change to the probate fee system in England and Wales, and will mean an increase in fees for the vast majority of families. This approach has already been criticised in the House of Lords, and this latest OTS report further highlights the need to simplify the tax system surrounding death, rather than complicate it further.

We will keep members updated.

Simon Hodges is Director of Policy at STEP

Government changes E&W probate procedure without consultation

Emily Deane TEP

This Blog was updated on 26/11/2018 – for latest developments, please see the update at the end of the article below.

The government has announced amendments to the procedure for applying for probate in England and Wales, with less than a month’s notice. The Statutory Instrument (The Non-Contentious Probate (Amendment) Rules 2018) will come into force on 27 November 2018.

The Rules were laid as a negative instrument, meaning they don’t need the approval of Parliament and have already been signed into law by the relevant Minister. The instrument can be annulled by Parliament before implementation, but this is rare.

In brief the amended rules:

  1. allow personal online applications for probate to be made by an unrepresented applicant;
  1. enable all applications for probate to be verified by a statement of truth (instead of an oath) and without the will having to be marked (by the applicant, solicitor or probate practitioner);
  1. extend time limits in the caveat process, which give the person registering the caveat notice of any application for probate;
  1. allow caveat applications and standing searches (which give notice of grants being issued) to be made electronically;
  1. extend the powers of district probate registrars equivalent to those of district judges; and
  1. make further provision for the issue of directions (instructions to the parties) in relation to hearings.

The Probate Service has accepted online applications from personal applicants (individuals not represented by probate specialists) since earlier this year, with a view to making the system simpler and ‘easier to understand’.

There are concerns that the introduction of the online service may discourage individuals from using a probate specialist where it may be advisable to do so, for example where the estate is taxable, has foreign or complex components, or may be disputed.

The announcement comes at the same time as the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to increase the probate application fee with a banded fee structure depending on the value of the estate.

STEP strongly opposed this new system when it was proposed in 2016, on the basis that it is disproportionate to the service provided by the probate court. It is effectively a new tax on bereaved families. The government intends to introduce this measure without any proper debate via Statutory Instrument (see STEP blog: The death tax returns).

STEP will continue to follow developments in this area.

UPDATE 26/11/2018

HMCTS has advised that they will shortly provide further information with regard to the template of the statement of truth, but at present it is their intention only to make small changes to the current oath format to ensure that it fits with the new procedure and to make sure that practitioners do not need to change the format completely. They will soon provide template wording that must replace the jurat at the foot of the oath, as well as wording to account for the removal of the need to sign the will.

HMTCS have also provided guidance on the changes to the way caveat applications can be submitted. This is as follows.

Please note the following changes to Rule 44 regarding caveats:

  • Rules 44(2) (b) and 44 (3) (a) and (b): Caveats can now be entered and extended via email as well as post. If the caveat is to be entered electronically, the caveat form should be emailed to the DPR solicitors enquiries address. The email attaching the caveat form should ask for the fee to be taken from your PBA account. The fee must be paid before the caveat is entered/extended and currently there is no provision to pay a fee electronically other than by use of a PBA account. The caveat should be in the prescribed form i.e. form 3 (precedent form number 41 in Tristram & Cootes Probate Practice, 31st Edition). Caveats received after 4pm will be entered the following day.
  • Rules 44(6),(10) and (12): The period for entering an appearance/summons for directions following a warning to a caveat is now 14 days (calendar days including weekends and Bank Holidays).
  • Rule 44(13): District Probate Registrars can now deal with all summons to discontinue caveats following an appearance – whether by consent or not. The summons should be sent to the registry where the grant application is pending and if there is no application pending to the registry where the caveat was entered.
  • Rule 44(14): District Probate Registrars can now deal with applications to enter a further caveat entered by or on behalf of any caveator whose caveat is either in force or has ceased to have effect under R44(7) or (12) and under R45(4) and R46(3). These applications should be sent to the registry where the caveat was entered.
  • R45(3) and R46(3): Registrars can now deal with applications under these rules.
  • R43: Standing Searches can now be entered and extended via email as well as post. If the Standing Search is to be entered electronically, form PA1s should be emailed to the DPR with confirmation that the fee is to be taken by PBA. The fee must be paid before the Standing Search is entered/extended and currently there is no provision to pay a fee electronically other than by use of a PBA account.

In addition, please note that caveats received after 4pm will be deemed as having been received on the following day.

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel

Think you’re covered with a statutory notice? Watch out for a DWP claim

Emily Deane TEPUpdate 4 July 2018: STEP has liaised with the DWP on this technical issue. Please see its response below.

If you work in the probate field you will be very familiar with the process of submitting a statutory advertisement, (under the Trustee Act 1925 for England, or the Trustee Act 1958 in Northern Ireland) in The Gazette and a local newspaper, following the receipt of the grant of representation.

A statutory notice is a published advertisement giving notice of the personal representatives’ intention to distribute the deceased’s estate. The objective is to ensure that sufficient effort has been made to locate creditors, prior to distributing the estate to the beneficiaries, whilst safeguarding the executor or trustee from becoming personally liable from any unidentified creditors. If a notice is not submitted and a creditor subsequently makes a claim after the estate has been distributed, then the executor or trustee may become personally liable for any unidentified debts.

The notice gives creditors and anyone else who may have an ‘interest’ in the estate up to two months to make a claim via the personal representatives, although they do not affect the right of certain people to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

Once the notices have expired the personal representatives may then distribute the estate, knowing that they will not be personally liable should claims or debts of the deceased become payable. Therefore, it is prudent and good practice that no significant distributions should be made from the estate before the statutory notices have expired.

An exception for the DWP

However, not all advisors are aware that if you have already paid the beneficiaries their entitlements from the estate, and you subsequently receive a letter from the UK Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) about a claim, then you are not protected by the statutory notice.

In these circumstances you will need to contact the beneficiaries to explain that some money may need to be reimbursed to the DWP, and that they should return the money they have been given, pending the outcome of the enquiry. Clearly this scenario causes dissatisfaction for the beneficiaries, as well as delay and potential costs to the advisor.

Terry Moore TEP of Burstalls in Hull initially brought this to STEP’s attention. STEP’s UK Practice Committee has subsequently raised the lack of awareness around this issue and written to the DWP pointing out the difficulties it presents, and the length of time it often takes to receive a repayment request. STEP will report back in due course.

Update: 4 July 2018: The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has responded to STEP’s enquiry in relation to DWP claims and whether they are bound by statutory notices:

The DWP has confirmed that it does not have any authority to dismiss the protection afforded to executors and trustees by the Trustee Act 1925, section 27. If the DWP registers an interest in an estate outside of the expiry date stipulated in the statutory notice then the interest will be withdrawn, providing the executors or trustees produce evidence of the statutory notice, and the estate has already been distributed to the beneficiaries. All of these criteria have to apply for this to be the case. If the Estate has not been wholly distributed or not distributed at all despite the notice expiring then the DWP would still expect the Executor or Trustee to treat this as a potential claim on the Estate. This is due to the fact that the Executor/Trustee is now aware of this interest and has not yet distributed the Estate.

However, if the DWP registers an interest within the specified timescale, as a potential creditor of the estate, there is an expectation that executors and trustees accept this interest as a contingent liability and act accordingly until the liability has been established.  If a claim has not been quantified on the date the statutory notice expires, and the executors or trustees are being pressurised to distribute the estate to the beneficiaries, then there are some options available to the executors or trustees. These options may include obtaining the beneficiaries’ agreement to indemnify the personal representatives if the liability ever crystallises or to insure against the contingent liability. However, the DWP reinforces that it cannot advise executors or trustees how to administer the estate.

In addition, the DWP has advised that work is ongoing between DWP and HMRC aimed at streamlining the system.

STEP will continue to liaise with the DWP on these technical improvements.

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel