September 2023

Grants of Probate now taking up to nine months

Jo Summers Partner - Private Wealth & Tax

Speaking on behalf of STEP, the professional body for inheritance advisors, on BBC Radio 4, Jo recently discussed the delays which are having a devastating effect for some families.

Whilst official figures from Government show that waiting times for probate have risen from two to four months, these statistics are based on the day an application is assigned to be processed, not the date it is received.

As we are seeing on the ground, the reality for those applying for probate is rather a different story.

“The clock does not start ticking when you post your papers off, or press send if you are doing it online. It starts when the case worker begins their work.”

In June, it was reported that there was a backlog of over 40,000 probate applications. By September, this had risen to over 50,000 cases which should have been dealt with within 16 weeks but have not.

One reason for this is that there are far more excess deaths to take into account – not just because of COVID, but because of the impact of COVID on other health conditions, as well as the effect of NHS waiting times on excess deaths. This has put more pressure on the probate system.

If you can, it is far better to apply for your probate online. Around 90% of applications done online are complete within nine weeks. However, paper applications are taking much longer to be dealt with.

One of the primary reasons for the delays is the way in which the Government has centralised the probate system.

Whilst there used to be 10 regional centres in England and Wales, now there is one big probate ‘hub’ in Birmingham and one in Newcastle that deals with all paper applications.

This means that, as a practitioner, you can’t access people in the same way as you once could.  Whereas before, if we had a complex case we could ring up our local probate officer to bring it to their attention to aid the process, we can no longer do this.

This is frustrating for probate specialists as we have lost that ability to deal directly with the probate officers, but it is even more frustrating for the families involved – many of whom still have to pay the inheritance tax (IHT) due on the estate.

Unfortunately for those affected, the probate office and HMRC are not joined up in their thinking. This means that HMRC is keen to collect the IHT owed to them, despite the fact that probate may not yet have been granted.

“The delays are causing a great deal of stress for families – probate is already a sensitive and emotional process, but if you do owe any inheritance tax, HMRC will insist this be paid on time – usually six months from the date of death.”

Sadly, this is resulting in some people needing to take out loans in order to pay the IHT due by the deadline.

To help avoid the challenges associated with probate delays, we would advise people to submit applications online, or better still, to get professional advice.

It won’t always be possible to submit the application online as some cases are more complex than others. This is where a professional probate adviser can help – advising on the best option and completing this on your behalf.

To make sure you are working with the right professional – someone who is experienced in probate – always look for the ‘TEP’ initials after their name. This means that they are a member of STEP – the professional body for inheritance advisors – and are appropriately regulated and trained to deal with your needs.

We would also recommend that, to avoid having no access to money in the event that your other half dies, it is wise to open a joint account.

This will ensure that you would have access to funds, as opposed to not being able to access money that was solely in your husband’s name, for example. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of not being able to access money for several months.

Of course, there are exceptional circumstances when probate fast-tracking can take place.

This emergency probate procedure can help if you are selling a house and have already exchanged contracts, but the sale hasn’t been completed when the owner sadly dies.

At that point, the house goes into probate and the sale is halted until probate is granted but you’ll have financial penalties for not completing on time – it can and does happen!

If you use a probate specialist, we can advise whether the fast-track procedure is relevant or not.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

For help with grants of probate and support with fast-track requests, Jurit can assist – contact Jo Summers for more information.

Jo Summers Partner - Private Wealth & Tax +44 (0) 20 7846 2370
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Please note this paper is intended to provide general information and knowledge about legal developments and topics which may be of interest to readers. It is not a comprehensive analysis of law nor does it provide specific legal advice. Advice on the specific circumstances of a matter should be sought.