4 January 2022 | Comment | Article by Eleanor Evans TEP
Our Partner and Head of Trusts and Estate Administration, Eleanor Evans, reflects on another year of delays in the estate administration process, caused by backlogs at the probate registry, and looks forward to what 2022 might bring.
I wrote in December last year about the delays at the probate registry, which have had a considerable impact on executors and beneficiaries of estates, and their solicitors. It would be easy to assume that the delays have been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst this is, in part, true, the reasons behind the delays are rather more complex and in fact the backlogs had started long before the pandemic, in 2017.
In my article of December 2020, I reported timescales of around 12 weeks, or longer, to obtain grants of probate. Unfortunately, the current timescales are similar. There had been some improvement in relation to newer applications (which seems likely to be linked to better resourcing at the probate registry, the rolling out of increased functionality in its online probate application system, and increased take up of that system). That said, there had continued to be long delays in “stopped” cases, where queries had been raised by the probate registry or there were complications; for example, applications where the original will had been lost.
The probate registry communicated with practitioners in Summer 2021 to advise that they intended to focus their resources on the backlog of stopped applications. Inevitably, the impact of this has been increased delays in respect of new applications.
Change to excepted estates legislation
The Inheritance Tax (Delivery of Accounts) (Excepted Estates) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force on 1 January 2022. These regulations will mean that excepted estates (where no inheritance tax is due), will no longer need to complete forms IHT205 and IHT217. This is a simplification to the probate application process for excepted estates, which will be welcomed by executors and solicitors.
Impact on timescales
The probate registry are updating their online system between 1 and 12 January 2022, to enable applications for deaths from 1 January 2022, to use the new procedures. In the past, system updates and procedural changes have impacted on timescales and it seems possible that this change will bring yet more delays.
The Law Society have reported that the probate registry intend to return to normal turnaround times by March 2022. Whether this is realistic in light of recent developments in the pandemic, remains to be seen.
Impact of the delays
We continue to see the effects of the delays at the probate registry. The long delays can cause real problems with property sales, sometimes causing sales to fall through. Beneficiaries (who may be relatives or friends, or charities supported by the person who has died), have to wait longer to see a conclusion to the estate administration and to receive their legacy. The longer timescales involved in administering the estate can increase the tax compliance requirements for the executors, and the costs and expenses payable by the estate (for example in maintaining a property whilst waiting for probate to be granted so a sale can complete).
Professional bodies including the Law Society, STEP, Solicitors for the Elderly and the Institute of Legacy Management meet regularly with the probate registry and provide helpful updates for practitioners to help them to manage their cases and know what to expect.
We hope that we will begin to see improvements to the probate registry delays, in 2022.