Government is sneaking through stealth ‘death tax’

‘Death tax’ chaos: Huge backlog builds up as families wait up to 12 weeks to get control of estates amid rush ahead of increase in probate fees to £2,500

  • Grieving families face 2 week delays to get control of their loved ones’ finances
  • Huge backlog sparked by rush to apply for probate ahead of a rise in estate fees
  • Ministry of Justice is set to make an extra £185 million a year from the fee rise

Grieving families face delays of up to 12 weeks to get control of their loved ones’ finances as Britain’s probate system goes into meltdown.

A huge backlog has been sparked by a rush to apply for probate ahead of a rise in fees from £215 to £2,500 on estates worth between £500,000 and £1million.

At the same time civil servants are struggling with an IT system launched in January, and there have been glitches with a new digital application process. The previous system had a waiting time of only ten working days.

Grieving families face delays of up to 12 weeks to get control of their loved ones’ finances as Britain’s probate system goes into meltdown

Ministers have been accused of sneaking a stealth ‘death tax’ through Parliament by categorising the charges as ‘fees’. Probate registry offices now face a huge rise in applications as families try to avoid the increase.

Yesterday ministers were branded ‘completely irresponsible’ for forcing ‘chaos and uncertainty’ on bereaved families.

Bereaved son is forced to wait nine weeks for probate

David Crisp has been waiting nine weeks for probate after his mother Wilna died aged 89 in January.

His application for legal authority to distribute the contents of his mother’s will was sent to the Ipswich office at the start of March – but he still does not know when it will be granted.

When he called the probate registry, staff did not answer the phone. Later he saw on their website that his documents had been sent to Newcastle upon Tyne because of the backlog.

Inheritance wrangle: David Crisp and his mother Wilna, who died aged 89

The retired chief executive said he is furious that despite paying a six-figure sum in inheritance tax from the estate, his family still cannot claim their inheritance. He fears market volatility could dent the value of the legacy, much of which is invested in shares.

Mr Crisp, 64, from Woodbridge, Suffolk, said: ‘What is galling is we paid a horrendous six-figure sum – and in return we get such poor service.

‘There’s been a complete lack of communication from the probate registry. I have spent ages calling and recalling them and there is no information on the website. Even now they still can’t give me a timescale.’

A grant of probate allows families to take an important step in gaining control over an estate after someone dies so they can execute the will.

Executors can apply to administer the estate via a solicitor or by themselves using a new digitised system. It aims to prevent fraud and ensure the deceased person’s wishes are carried out correctly.

But the delays are leaving families in limbo, solicitors said yesterday. Some have had to sell their own assets to pay inheritance tax bills, while others have been unable to sell loved ones’ homes or seen sales fall through. 

For inheritances tied up in shares, the value of the legacy could plummet due to market volatility during the long wait for probate.

Some local probate registries have stopped answering the phone, and staff cannot tell families when their certificate will be sent.

Bereaved relatives who make errors in the application form face further delays, with waits of up to 15 weeks if they are sent to the back of the queue. 

The probate registry in Cardiff is believed to have a backlog of up to 2,000 applications, with similar numbers piling up in Brighton and Winchester.

The system has also recently changed to a new certificate, but some contain errors that make them unusable, solicitors said.

Last night MPs said the fee increase must be shelved while the ‘botched’ system is sorted out.

Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: ‘It’s not just the unfairness of the harsh increases in costs.  

‘These unfair charges are also compounded by incompetence. This is all causing a lot of anxiety at a time when families are at their most vulnerable.’

Tory MP John Stevenson, a probate solicitor, said: ‘The Government should not increase fees until they can show the new system works for practitioners and families.’

Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: ‘It’s not just the unfairness of the harsh increases in costs’

Solicitors said the chaos will continue while the planned fee hike, which had been due to be introduced last month, remains in limbo.

They called on ministers to stem the flood of applications by stating that the higher fees will apply only in cases where the person dies after the changes are brought in.

House sale hold-up so frustrating 

Former council registrar Ian Hilton cannot accept an offer on his late mother-in-law’s house even though he applied for probate in March.

Mr Hilton, from Lancashire, lodged his application on the new computerised system but it stalled because of a printing glitch.

He has made repeated phone calls but does not know when the certificate granting probate will be sent through. 

Former council registrar Ian Hilton cannot accept an offer on his late mother-in-law’s house

He said: ‘I rang again and it was still not working and they didn’t know when it would be. It is astounding that they do not have a backup.’

Mr Hilton, 70, pictured, added: ‘It’s like most government schemes – it’s ill-thought-out and it will affect thousands.

‘In some cases people are going to be desperately distraught about losing a loved one and then they have got this mess to deal with. It’s annoying and frustrating.’

Emily Deane from Step, which represents family lawyers, said: ‘It’s complete chaos and it’s causing uncertainty and worry for bereaved families.’ 

Elaine Roche, of Solicitors for the Elderly, added: ‘Families are in a limbo situation. I’ve got a few clients who are really struggling.’

Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: ‘It is extremely disappointing to hear of these delays – particularly when the impact falls on the bereaved.’

The final stage in introducing the increase in probate fees has been delayed because of a backlog in the Commons timetable caused by Brexit. Usually, a tax rise would be debated and voted on by the Commons and Lords.

But because it was described as a ‘fee’, the probate rise required only a change to a type of legislation called a ‘statutory instrument’. 

It is likely to face a vote, but no debate, when formally moved in the Commons.

Families currently pay a flat £215 probate fee. But under the new system, the charge will rise according to the value of the estate.

It would mean 280,000 families a year face larger bills. 

Around 50,000 families inheriting more than £500,000 would face fees of between £2,500 and £6,000 on top of inheritance tax. 

The Ministry of Justice is set to make an extra £185million a year from the charges by 2022/23. 

A spokesman said: ‘Our new online service is making probate simpler and more convenient for bereaved people.

‘The reforms safeguard the integrity of the probate process while also meaning most people will no longer need to travel to a probate registry or solicitors office to swear an oath.’


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