The planned reform of probate fees in England and Wales has been scrapped.
A year ago the government tabled proposals to increase the level of probate fees in England and Wales. The idea was to move from the current single fee approach (£155 via a solicitor, £215 otherwise) to a sliding scale, based on estate value. For estates valued at over £2 million, the fee would have escalated to £6,000.
The proposals met with predictably heavy criticism, winning the distinction of being labelled a ‘new death tax’ in some parts of the press. Nevertheless, the government pushed ahead with draft legislation, aiming to launch the new fees from April 2019. One consequence was that solicitors, and others acting as executors, rushed to submit probate documentation ahead of the anticipated fee increase.
As a backlog built up at probate offices and HMRC, everything went strangely quiet at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). For reasons which are not entirely clear, April passed without the final stage of the legislative process being triggered. This only encouraged more rushed submissions as the new deadline was unknown. The Law Society noted that many solicitors and their clients were reporting a wait of much longer than the six to eight weeks timescale claimed by the MoJ for probate grants. It did not help that, coincidentally, a new administrative system for probate was being rolled out in the first half of 2019.
What finally put an end to the proposals was the (second) prorogation of parliament, which meant that the legislation automatically lapsed. While it could have been reintroduced, Brexit and an impending election both provided reasons not to do so. Instead the MoJ will now undertake a wider review of court fees which will involve “small adjustments to cover costs”.
If you think that the whole saga sounds eerily like something that has happened before, you are right. In 2016 even higher increases in probate fees were proposed (up to £20,000), only to be abandoned in May 2017, just as the following month’s general election loomed into view.
Helpfully, the MoJ’s announcement has indirectly highlighted the importance of having a Will and the time it can take to transform its contents into reality. If you don’t have a Will – and over half of the adult population does not – your estate will be subject to a process very similar to probate, but with the added disadvantage that the laws of intestacy, rather than your intentions, determine its distribution. Creating a Will, and regularly reviewing it, is a bedrock of good financial planning.