Probate delays affecting estate settlements

There are currently long delays in gaining probate on the estates of the recently deceased. 

Late in 2018, the government issued a written statement announcing its intent to go ahead with controversial increases in probate fees for England and Wales. Instead of the current flat fees of £155 for applications through a solicitor and £215 for individual applications, draft legislation was issued with a sliding fee scale that rose to £6,000 for estates valued at over £2m. To many, the measure looked more like a new tax than a fee increase.

A start date wasn’t set, but the legislation was widely expected to come into force around the end of April 2019. However, the statutory instrument to bring about the change has not yet been presented to the House of Commons. HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which administers probate, has recently told the Law Society that it does not know when, or if, any fee changes will happen. The delay could be due to Brexit dominating parliamentary business, the near universal criticism of the measure and/or a possible election coming up.

Alongside this uncertain legislative approach, HMCTS has launched a new probate administration regime that has already encountered teething problems. This in turn has run into an acceleration in probate applications as solicitors and executors have rushed to pre-empt the planned fee increase and pushed through the paperwork.  

The result has been a backlog at probate registries throughout England and Wales. HMCTS is now advising solicitors not to chase any applications until at least eight weeks have passed. However, HMRC has said it will make no concessions on when it will start charging interest on inheritance tax, which is due by the end of the sixth month after the month of death. 

Bereavement is already a difficult time for many families, so these delays could cause more stress and remind us that winding up an estate can be painfully slow. If you have life assurance policies, one way to sidestep that delay – and potentially save inheritance tax – is to place the policies in trust. Alas, trusts carry their own complications, so do seek professional advice before taking any action to change policy ownership. 

The value of tax reliefs depends on your individual circumstances. Tax laws can change. The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate tax or trust advice.