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A survey for Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) has confirmed that increasing delays at the Probate Registry mean that many families are currently waiting several months for a grant of probate to be issued. They found that more than half of applications are taking over 20 weeks, with one in twenty exceeding 32 weeks.
As a result of the fallout following a rise in probate fees in 2018, the system was backlogged even before lockdown began last March, with the pandemic quickly exacerbating the problem. According to HMCTS, there is currently a backlog of over 29,000 applications, although they say the average waiting time for a grant to be issued is now less than 7 weeks.
Everything on ice
Until a grant of probate is issued, the executors cannot take control of the deceased’s finances, dispose of assets and distribute the estate in accordance with the Will. Delays mean that in some instances, executors have been left unable to pay Inheritance Tax on time.
Also, there have been reports of house sales falling through as a result of grants of probate taking substantially longer to be issued than initially expected.
It was against this background that the Government announced that with effect from 2 November 2020, all applications for grants of probate must proceed through MyHMCTS – an online service to issue, pay for and manage applications within the Courts and Tribunals Service. It replaces a system of paper applications that in future, will only be accepted in very exceptional circumstances. As a result of some practitioners experiencing technical difficulties with the new online system, HMCTS has confirmed they will continue to accept paper applications until 11 January 2021. SFE had urged HMCTS not to make the system mandatory until all glitches are identified and resolved.
BLB Wills and Probate Solicitor, Jessica Woolfenden, said:
“We’ve been waiting for online applications for some time. As with any new system, we’re expecting the inevitable teething problems and, understandably, we remain anxious to see how things pan out, particularly in terms of turnaround time. While it’s very early days, in estates where there has been no Inheritance Tax to pay, we have seen online applications turned around very quickly, certainly comparable to the time we would have expected before the changes in 2018. However, the real test will be in respect of estates with an Inheritance Tax liability, so I’m afraid that overall, the jury remains out.”