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Has the UK’s Digital Probate System Made Applying for Probate Easier?23rd November 2021 Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning
In 2017, the UK Government announced plans to make applying for grants of probate easier and more accessible to the general public by introducing a new system that enabled people to apply online.
The system got a major upgrade in 2019 and looks increasingly like the future of the probate application process for both everyday consumers and solicitors. The aim was to open up the process and to make it easier for ordinary people to understand and engage with. At the same time, it would make the system faster and more efficient.
The system has certainly been popular in the years since, but it’s also seen its share of issues, including long delays and missing information on applications. Whether these are teething problems or long-term issues remains to be seen and the impact of new developments may be to introduce new problems - or novel solutions.
The Digital Probate System
Applying for probate is the first step towards gaining control of the estate of someone who has died. The executor of a will, or a close relative in cases where the deceased left no will, can apply for probate once they have estimated the value of the estate and discovered whether or not it will be subject to Inheritance Tax.
It’s usually best to consult an expert solicitor in such cases, as there are many responsibilities that you will need to take on as the executor of a will and it can be difficult to manage these without assistance. A solicitor can help to estimate the value of an estate, respond to any caveats issued against your application for probate or offer guidance about whether you have legal grounds to challenge a will yourself.
While the digital probate system has opened the process up to consumers, it hasn’t made things easier for solicitors. Physical copies of the original documents still have to be sent in the post to the probate registry, and you are required to answer the same questions online as you would on the paper form (PA1P). The process is the same but has moved online; it hasn’t been streamlined at all.
Since the digital probate system launched, it has been beset by delays. Waiting times for grants of probate reached an average of eight weeks in 2021 and can be even higher in some cases. However, these are not entirely the fault of the new digital system - factors like the pandemic and the move from local probate registries to a single, centralised probate registry have exacerbated this problem.
According to HMRC, another major reason for delays is that the applicant has provided incorrect or incomplete information on their application form. This might include missing people out of a family tree document in cases of intestacy, or sending documents to the wrong probate registry address and losing them.
There is also a risk that members of the public incorrectly report the inheritance tax liability of the deceased’s estate to HMRC. If the estate was then distributed before the inheritance tax liability was fully discharged, they would be personally liable, which could create serious problems.
It’s always best to consult an experienced solicitor when applying for probate. A specialist can ensure that all information is correct before the application is made, submit the application more quickly than someone applying on their own, and provide peace of mind throughout the process. Additionally, solicitors are insured, meaning that the executor has some protection if an error is made in calculating inheritance tax liability.
However, even if a solicitor can submit an application faster, there is no guarantee that it will be processed more quickly. Because documents must still be sent via post, they must be matched to online applications by the probate registry, and this can also create delays. For solicitors, this is frustrating - there is no consistency in how quickly online applications are completed, even when all the information is correct.
One way to solve this problem would be for the probate registry to start accepting certified copies of documents, which could be submitted online. This would make it much easier to match documents to applications and prevent any postal delays that might affect applications.
It would also make it simpler to complete applications if the online portal was easier to navigate, particularly when amendments to the legal statement are required. As the system is further refined and developed, it will be interesting to see whether these improvements are made and how this affects the delays the system is currently experiencing.
It would also be beneficial for inheritance tax reporting to move online. These forms are currently filled out on paper and must be signed by the executor, but as other aspects of the grant application process have moved within the digital probate system, it’s possible that this element will also move online and make applications faster and easier to complete.
Challenging a will
For now, probate is only available online for non-contested wills and once a challenge is issued, further communication on the issue must take place in writing or through the courts. There are several possible legal grounds for challenging a will - if you suspect fraud, for example, or if the deceased person didn’t have the mental capacity to consent to the will - and those who feel they have a legally valid reason to do so can issue a caveat.
Issuing a caveat is the first stage of challenging a will and prevents the probate registry from issuing a grant of probate. This can now be done online through the digital probate system by both solicitors and consumers. However, it’s best to consult with an expert lawyer to determine your likelihood of success before issuing a caveat.
Thankfully, only certain categories of people can issue caveats and as a result, it’s unlikely that any real damage can be done if someone makes an error in this process. Beyond delays in the administration of the estate and additional fees being incurred to deal with the caveat, any consequences can usually be undone, so this is not a major concern.
Even so, it’s possible that as more elements of this process are moved online, the ability of inexperienced users to access them could create further problems, so it’s always best to consult a legal probate professional, which could save you time, money and effort when applying for a grant of probate.