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Delays at probate registry due to Covid-19 causing problems for families

Delayed probates can cause problems for dependants unable to pay bills and forced to take emergency loans

Coronavirus disruption at the probate registry means that family members and other dependants of the deceased are facing considerable delays in receiving their inheritances, putting many under enormous financial stress, says Wilsons, a private wealth law firm.

These delays have caused problems for those dependants who urgently need access to the estate of a deceased family member on whom they were financially dependent for their living expenses. Wilsons says that despite the difficult situations in which many dependants find themselves, not enough efforts are being made to speed up the probate application process which is crucial to the distribution of assets.

Wilsons says that in some cases, people who are entitled to receive considerable sums of money following a death have been even been forced to sign up to receive benefits or take out emergency loans, as they wait for their inheritance to come through.

In addition, due to the delays, some dependants are also finding themselves liable for mounting interest charged on inheritance tax owed on properties. A Grant from the Probate Registry is needed before a sale can take place. Should these properties remain vacant for extended periods of time, they also risk being occupied by squatters who could prove difficult to evict especially during lockdown.

Even before the pandemic hit, the probate registry had been experiencing severe delays due to a surge in applications ahead of proposed fee increases. With the vast majority of probate registry staff working from home, they have not been able to access the necessary documents to process the grant of probate. Some staff have also been put on furlough, which has led to further delays.

Wilsons says that moving the process online, which was rolled out during the lockdown in an attempt to process applications more efficiently, has been very counterproductive.

The online registration process enables only very straightforward applications to be made. Only applications made by executors named in a will or by one person only in cases where there is no will, can be progressed online. Then only the person making the application is able to access the case file, meaning that checking the progress of an application is not possible for other interested people.

Delays in distributing the estates have been made worse by hold-ups at HMRC, which is responsible for determining the amount of inheritance tax that must be paid. The Revenue has also undergone significant disruption as a result of the pandemic.  Many staff were redeployed to administer coronavirus emergency support schemes, meaning that there are fewer resources available.

Ann Cory, Senior Associate at Wilsons says: “Delays are causing an inordinate amount of stress at what is already an extremely difficult time for bereaved families. Some beneficiaries who are waiting for substantial sums from deceased family members are now waiting for well over six months before they have access to funds and are struggling to pay bills.”

“Probate registries had a backlog that had been building up in the past year. The compulsory introduction of online applications and the restrictions caused by Coronavirus has been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“The delays are so severe that the probate registries are only responding to queries about applications that have been with them for eight weeks. With applications continuing to stack up, the registry office and HMRC urgently need to devote greater resources to clearing the backlog. Automation will only take them so far, they need people who understand the process and can apply common sense to difficult situations”

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