Online Probate Applications: a long awaited step into the modern age or a cause for further delay in an already time-consuming process?Peter Hamilton
The Probate Registry is the court body that deals with Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration (collectively called Grants of Representation), which are required in most cases for dealing with the assets and liabilities of someone who has died. The process to apply for a Grant of Representation has recently gone through a number of significant changes.
Until relatively recently applications were made by submitting a sworn statement called an Oath, but this process was replaced in November 2018 by a two page Statement of Truth (that contained broadly the same information as the Oath), which must be signed by the executors or administrators and sent to the Probate Registry alongside the relevant Inheritance Tax forms.
Further change was brought into effect in April 2020 with the introduction of a 23-page application form in place of the two page Statement of Truth. The need for a new form, and the level of information contained in the form was both questioned and criticised by professionals, given the time and cost burden this would have when administering an estate.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, yet more changes to the applications have been introduced, in what appears to be an attempt to centralise the system before eventually adopting a completely online application process.
One of the major concerns legal professionals faced at the start of the pandemic was the obtaining of ‘wet signatures’ for Grant applications, whilst still maintaining social distancing. In response to this, the Probate Registry allowed the temporary acceptance of electronic signatures on the new application forms, which was a welcome announcement for professionals keen to ensure that applications could continue to be submitted during the COVID-19 pandemic, without unreasonable delays.
Shortly after the introduction of the new forms, it was announced that there would be a move to online applications, and in November 2020 it became mandatory for professionals to submit probate applications online, unless certain criteria were met. The Law Society, who regulates solicitors in England and Wales, advised against the government making the online process mandatory until there were assurances that the online systems worked effectively, and sufficient guidance had been released to assist in situations where the system could not be effectively used. Whilst literature was released on the use of the online process, the advice of the Law Society appears to have been largely ignored and unfortunately, practitioners attempting to use the new system faced a number of teething problems, resulting in the applications becoming more time consuming to complete, and causing delays to clients.
Rather frustratingly, the online application process did away with the recently introduced forms, and instead produced a two page Legal Statement, not dissimilar to the previous Statement of Truth, to be signed by the executors and sent in to the Probate Registry alongside the Inheritance Tax forms. Given all documents still needed to be sent in their paper form to the Probate Registry, the question of whether there is in fact a benefit to the new system is one many professionals are asking. From the point of view of the legal professional, the process seems to add to the workload, for the same end result.
Although there have been issues with the online process, as the dust settles and some of the initial problems are ironed out, it is a welcome relief that online applications for Grants of Representation are now being processed faster than at any point since the changes started to be introduced. While, for the sake of clients and their families, we hope that the change to online probate applications will result in a permanent reduction in the time it takes to receive the Grants, it remains to be seen how the new process will cope as more online applications are submitted.