Once the pandemic hit, moreover, all HMRC officers, including those dealing with queries on their IHT helpline, switched to working from home. This created huge issues which have not yet been fully resolved, as HMRC broadly only communicates by post and this has proven increasingly difficult.
Correspondence has often gone missing, or not been sent at all, as the majority of HMRC case workers have continued to work from home and arrangements to have correspondence printed and posted by HMRC colleagues working from the office have consistently failed.
As has been true for a number of years, although a specific case worker is assigned to each estate, no direct contact details are ever given – the only way to get in touch with HMRC other than by post is to call the above mentioned IHT helpline. During the pandemic this has been particularly frustrating, as those on the helpline can only access the notes left by case workers on the HMRC system.
In the first few months of the pandemic this meant that receipts for tax paid were routinely not issued. Thankfully the system has now much improved as the IHT department can now share receipts in electronic form direct with the Probate Service.
Nonetheless issues remain, and there can often be delays with issuing the receipt – this could be because the case worker does not have access to all the paperwork (whether because it has not been sent to them or, more often than not, because it has not been scanned properly when received by HMRC). Although HMRC have 20 working days to issue the receipt, it is always best to call the IHT helpline after the 15th working day or so, as at that stage it may be possible to ask HMRC to expedite issue of the receipt. Generally speaking, calling HMRC on their IHT helpline is still the best way to move matters along, and should be done frequently – every few weeks.
It should be said that there have been some improvements at HMRC, as follows:
- IHT accounts may now be signed electronically. This measure was introduced during the pandemic and looks like it will be kept. Further details of this are given in HMRC guide to completing form IHT400, which can be found at:
Unfortunately, the IHT account itself must still be sent in to HMRC in hard copy.
- Where estates are deemed complex and are being dealt with by one of the IHT department's tax specialists (usually referred to as 'the compliance team'), it is now sometimes possible to switch to email communication. This should be requested every time, and approval will need to be given by all executors/administrators. Where the case worker agrees, his can lead to huge time savings.
Teething problems at the new Probate Service
Anyone who has been dealing with probates for more than a few years laments that they miss the days of regional Probate Registries. Each Probate Registry was manned by a small team of specialists, who could be contacted over the phone, and for professionals in particular this meant having any queries dealt with quickly. For both costs and efficiency reasons, most regional Probate Registries have now been closed, and probate services centralised into the Probate Service. Most probate applications are now dealt with by non-specialists, and this means that where circumstances are out of the ordinary, this can make the application process difficult.