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Digital probate service: DIY probate

View profile for Esther Woodhouse
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Since 2017, HM Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) have offered an online service enabling individuals to apply for a grant of probate in a deceased’s estate, providing certain criteria were met. HMCTS have now updated the system, now allowing applicants to lodge documentation, apply to have more than one executor named in a will and authorise electronic payments. 

Although the system still only applies to those estates that are deemed to be of a ‘non-complex’ nature, and does not apply to those cases where no will exists, it is clear that the system is gaining momentum. With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder: is the lure of a DIY system and the hope of finding a quicker, cheaper solution not a false economy for the lay executor in the long run?

Whilst I have always welcomed the court process becoming easier for lay executors, I still have my concerns that the system is open to the risk of unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of vulnerable applicants. So far, I  have seen no evidence of how the courts deal with this without engaging in any public contact. 

Let’s not underestimate the importance of an executor’s role. This is a vital job which ensures an estate is dealt with in accordance with the deceased’s wishes.  It is a legal duty to administer the estate with due diligence and, with that responsibility, careful consideration should be given to the extent of the assets and liabilities in the estate. It is imperative that there is a clear understanding from the outset of what needs to be done to move the administration forward and to get it right!  Have you asked yourself, for example:

  • Do I actually need a grant of probate?’
  • ‘Are there are any foreign assets?’
  • ‘Is there an inheritance tax liability?’
  • ‘Are there any other taxes for consideration?’
  • ‘If so, how is that calculated and how does that impact my application to the court?’
  • ‘Do I have all the information to answer the court’s questions?’

Whilst a grant of probate may not be required in every case, where a property is in existence or there are assets of a certain value, it is inevitable that you will need to make an application to the court to proceed.  Although you may deem the estate to be of a ‘non-complex’ nature, from experience, this can be deceptive at such an early stage of the proceedings. Often the work required and/or the complexity of issues are overlooked in an attempt to rush the process or find a cheap solution.

An application leading to the issue of a grant of probate must be considered carefully. You must be satisfied that the information you are producing is correct; after all, the executor is the person (or persons if there are several) who must sign all the documentation and will be liable if any information is untrue or incorrect.

In my view, the knowledge and expertise required to deal with any aspect of estate administration correctly should never be underestimated and a DIY approach leaves me in a cold sweat.

Whilst there appears to be a general view that solicitors’ costs are more expensive than other providers, I believe this is often a misconception. Costs are not an exact science but we consider the estate carefully so that we can fully understand the extent of the work required from the outset, and we base our fees on our years of experience.  The appeal of possibly saving costs should be treated with caution as, in practice, the reality can be very different!

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