Covid-19 has caused a growing backlog of probate claims that is frustrating bereaved families, lawyers and accountants.
The probate process has been a longstanding issue in the legal world, dragging out what is already an uncomfortable and distressing task. HMRC partially addressed the issues for tax advisers and executors a few years ago when it streamlined the process to allow IHT205 inheritance tax estate returns to be filed online.
Further changes were made in June to cater for the increased demand for clearance due to the rise in Covid-related deaths.
But Melinda Giles from the Law Society wills and equity committee told Private Eye: "We believe the problems are to do with the delays at HMRC as much as the probate office.”
A Law Society update on the issue in September explained: “Inheritance tax queries still remain the highest proportion of stops both on paper and digitally. HMCTS cannot progress without the IHT so asks to either wait until practitioners have it back or stagger sending to HMCTS until the recommended processing time of HMRC (currently 14 days) has passed."
HMRC denied the lawyers’ claims, advising that “there have been no delays in HMRC meeting probate requests” and that the department had been meeting turnaround times consistently. HMRC advised those seeking IHT clearance to submit applications digitally where possible.
Assurances from HMRC and HM Courts and Tribunal Service that the probate situation is improving were contradicted by a recent survey from fintech platform Exizent. Nearly three quarters of respondents reported negative impacts on their work. More than half of those surveyed reported an eight-week wait in the time it took for institutions to respond to probate claims.
With only one in three firms saying they were satisfied with the time taken to clear probate, Exizent founder and CEO Nick Cousins urged the profession to adopt technology that would speed the process.
Most discovery remains paper-based and nearly 5m letters are being sent every year to collect probate information. “Eighty-five percent don't have any technology dedicated to managing probate while 18% don’t use any software at all,” said Cousins, who is obviously keen to supply them all.