Online Probate Applications Mandatory for Solicitors from Today
Today (2nd November 2020) marks the first day of a new system of mandatory online applications for grants of probates by professional users, which the Government promises will be “simpler, quicker and more reliable”.
Under the new rules, legal professionals in England and Wales must now use the online system in the majority of grant applications, with certain exceptions for more unusual or complex cases, including:
- Grants of letters of administration and letters of administration with will annexed
- Grants to attorneys
- Urgent grants (grants ad colligenda bona)
- Grants in respect of foreign wills
- Applications to prove a copy will
- Applications for rectification of a will.
Why has the move come about?
The Coronavirus pandemic may well have accelerated the need to digitalise the probate process. But changes have been afoot since September 2016, when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that it was investing £1bn to reform and modernise the courts and tribunals system.
Since 1 October 2019 an online service has been available to use by all practitioners alongside the usual paper application process. So far, however, take up of online applications by professionals has been limited; in June this year – despite lockdown – just one in five applications for grants of probate by solicitors were made online.
How does it work?
To apply for a grant online, firms must set up a MyHMCTS account and register to process payments using a Payment by Account (PBA) number. Firms can have multiple users who are able to set up cases and submit applications. The system is accessible at any time of day and applications and supporting documents can be uploaded instantly. Users are able to view all their probate applications in a single online dashboard, which will display the stage of each case and will show notifications when action has been taken by the Probate Service. Each application includes a built-in checklist that can be saved and revisited before a final version is submitted. Practitioners are also required to complete all the required fields before submitting an application. This should reduce the risk of inadvertent error by omission.
HMCTS hopes that the online process will be more efficient and reliable than the current paper-based system, saving cost and time. Lengthening timeframes for obtaining grants is frustrating for both practitioners and clients, who are keen to press on and finalise estates, but often require the grant before assets can be collected in and any further action taken. Indeed, official MoJ statistics show that between January and March 2020, the average time between applications being made and grants of probate being issued was seven weeks. An online system – if it works as intended – should assist the Probate Service to process applications and issue grants more efficiently.
Room for improvement?
Responses to the consultation suggested that the one year old online system is widely supported in principle, but it is clear that there is room for improvements in functionality.
There are currently some aspects of the online system that are incompatible with working remotely, such as the need to send original documents to the Probate Registry by post. Until this requirement is re-evaluated, the application process cannot be promoted as ‘fully’ online.
In its consultation paper, HMCTS describes how users can track the progress of their applications, while receiving direct notifications when action has been taken. However, feedback suggests that there is limited information on the status of applications once papers have been sent to the Probate Service. Practitioners and support staff may still find themselves relying on Courts and Tribunal Service telephone helpline. A truly functional service would allow professionals and HMCTS staff to resolve issues through the online system, for example via a live chat service, as suggested by the Law Society.
It is also not currently possible for practitioners to monitor each other’s applications, which can cause difficulties when team members are on leave. For the system to work for practitioners in the longer term, it will be important for colleagues to be able to check or reassign applications.
Online HMRC reporting in the future?
An application for a grant involves two steps: reporting to HMRC about Inheritance Tax (even when there is no tax to pay) and the application for the grant itself. Where the longer Inheritance Tax account (IHT400) is required, practitioners must first post the relevant paperwork to HMRC, before submitting their grant application to HMCTS. HMRC is currently processing and emailing the probate summary (IHT421) directly to the Probate Service, but many users have experienced problems or delays with the forms arriving. The MoJ has confirmed in its response to the consultation that HMCTS and HMRC have been discussing greater collaboration of the dual systems operating at present.
The hope for the future is a seamless integration of HMRC and HMCTS digital platforms, and there is certainly scope for HMCTS to digitise other elements of the probate process (such as allowing the shorter Inheritance Tax form IHT205 to be completed and submitted online at the same time as the probate application).
A step in the right direction?
Despite room for improvement, the online system is a step in the right direction, and mandatory online applications is a move that must be welcomed. As more and more practitioners use and engage with the system, the increased take up will necessitate better monitoring and improvement. The online form, by its design with required fields, leaves less room for error and should enable grants to be processed more quickly and cost effectively than paper applications. Indeed, the MoJ has stated that the probate reform programme is expected to generate savings of £20 million over a 10 year period. In the shorter term, speedier processing of grants should be something that practitioners and clients alike will be grateful for.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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