Eleanor Evans explains the reasons that probate applications, which previously took around two weeks for the court to process, are now taking as long as 12 weeks or even longer in some cases.
A grant of probate, or letters of administration, is a document issued by the probate registry (part of the court), giving the personal representatives of a person who has died, legal authority to administer the estate. Grant of probate is the name given to the document that is issued when the person had left a will, and where no will was left, the document is known as a grant of letters of administration. Collectively, they are referred to as grants of representation.
Over the last few years, there have been numerous disruptions to the probate service, which have increased the timescales within which a grant of representation can be obtained. The probate registry used to issue grants within approximately two weeks. We began to experience delays back in 2017, when huge increases to probate court fees were proposed, leading applicants to rush to submit their probate applications and creating backlogs at the probate registry. The 2017 fee increase was kicked into the long grass by the government and then brought back in 2019, following which there was a further surge in applications. Again, the proposed fee increase did not go ahead, but the backlog had been created.
There have been several changes in the probate application process during the last few years, to which the probate registries have needed to adapt. Firstly, statements of truth were introduced in place of oaths, and then probate application forms in place of statements of truth. Finally, an online probate application process was brought in to replace the forms.
The online process is now partially in place and, by 11 January 2021, it will be mandatory for professional applicants to make certain types of application online. Other, more complex applications, remain paper-based for the time being. The Express has reported that many practitioners have complained about the online system, saying it has suffered glitches and is not always user-friendly.
To add to this, the Ministry of Justice has been working on centralising the local probate registries into a site in Birmingham, and several local registries have closed.
Finally, COVID-19 inevitably has had an impact on the probate service. Changed processes have been put in place to enable probate applications to continue in as normal a way as possible whilst people are working from home, but these have not always run smoothly; for example, HM Revenue and Customs now send inheritance tax forms directly to the probate registry rather than to the personal representative, but there are reports of these forms going missing en route which causes further delay.
What can you do if your grant of probate is delayed?
- Applicants or their solicitors can telephone the probate registry to chase the application, but it is recommended that you do not chase until at least eight weeks have passed; this will only tie up the registry’s phone lines and take staff away from processing applications. Expect time spent on hold.
- If you are a personal representative, ensure that all parties involved in the estate administration are aware of what is happening and the likely delays. In particular, make sure estate beneficiaries, and any estate creditors, are aware of the delays.
- If there is an estate property, ensure that the conveyancing solicitor, estate agent and any potential purchaser know that you are waiting for a grant of representation to be issued and that the probate registry delays are beyond your control.