Nonetheless, in the vast majority of cases, now that the new centralised system has had time to bed in, the process is quite straightforward (though still slower than when applications were dealt with by regional Probate Registries). The vast majority of applications can be made online, with any original documents required (such as the original Will or any codicils) posted to a scanning centre in Harlow.
The probate application cannot be submitted until 20 working days have passed from submission of the IHT account to HMRC, but once it has been made, if everything goes smoothly and no documents are lost, then the grant may be issued as soon as one or two weeks after submission. This is a vast improvement on the timeline as it was early during the pandemic, which could stretch to two to three months.
Where issues arise is where documents are missing, which could be for a number of reasons, such as:
- HMRC has not issued the receipt for tax paid. The probate application should not be submitted until the applicant is certain that the receipt has been issued. If it has not, then the application could be placed in a separate, 'stopped' queue at the Probate Service. This will inevitably lead to delays, as it could take the Probate Service several weeks to review the matter again once the receipt is sent by HMRC.
- Original documents are not sent to the Probate Service by the applicant. When the application has been submitted, the confirmation page on the online system will confirm which original or copy documents must be sent to the Probate Service. As long as the documents listed are sent, there should be no problems.
- Original documents are received by the Probate Service but not scanned on properly. As mentioned above, all original documents are scanned in by a third party company in Harlow, and they often miss out that documents may be double-sided, or may not scan a document at all.
The online probate application system includes updates by the Probate Service whenever any action is taken, so it is helpful to check this every few days to ensure progress is being made. If there are no update on the online system, then the only option will be to call the Probate Service to find out more. Where it is agreed on the phone that the Probate Service will do something, then it is worth calling back every few days to check that whatever was agreed has actually been done.
The future for probates
As discussed above, both the IHT department at HMRC and the Probate Service have been problematic over the pandemic, and this has caused undue delays with the probate process. This must have been particularly distressing for those who have lost loved ones unexpectedly because of Covid-19, and have been thrown into dealing with probate for the first time in their lives.
It has been an extremely frustrating time for both individuals and professionals dealing with these matters, but the good news is that improvements have been made: from online probate application to communication with HMRC compliance officers by email, the probate process is finally going digital, slowly but surely.
Vanina Wittenberg is a solicitor in the private client department at Hunters Law