Digital probate: a significant step forward?

Digital probate: a significant step forward?

Joe Cobb, Partner and Head of Department in Wills, Trusts and Estate Planning at JMW Solicitors, offers his view on the challenges faced by the digital probate system, and how it could be improved moving forward in 2022.

The UK Government’s digital probate system has developed significantly since its public offering commenced in January 2019. The aim was to make it easier and more cost-efficient for individuals, lawyers and probate professionals to apply for grants of probate (and to a lesser extent grants of administration), and for the digital platform to eventually supersede the paper-based one.

However, various challenges, including a lack of coordination between government agencies, staffing, training and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the application process to suffer significant delays which continue to date.

As we assist our clients to secure grants (of probate or administration) or assist from the opposite direction in seeking to challenge the validity of wills, the delays and the unavoidable fall-out are a source of unacceptable difficulty for client and practitioner alike. We see a system failing to achieve the outcomes it targeted.

One of the aims of the digital platform was to make the process easier, but we have not seen evidence of this. For solicitors, the process is much the same, and whilst applications may be more physically accessible to the lay executor, the ambiguous terminology littering the application platform which seeks to accommodate the requirements of archaic probate rules and regulations makes it almost inevitable that an application will be subject to a “requisition”, the application “stopped” and the application timeframe (currently 8 – 12 weeks) sent all the way back to the beginning of the queue. It is therefore inevitable that clients, disillusioned and confused under the pressure of eager beneficiaries, end up seeking the assistance of solicitors to navigate them successfully through the process.

We have outlined the key challenges that we face when using the digital probate system and suggested improvements that could see the system come somewhere close to delivering on its promise in the future.

Improving digital probate

While the digital probate system has big ambitions, it hasn’t yet gone far enough to make the process simpler for solicitors or lay executors. Original documents still need to be sent through the post, and the same information needs to be entered on forms. In short, whilst applications have moved online, they have not become easier to make.

In our view, the probate registry should start to accept certified and scanned copies of documents, rather than demanding originals, as this could speed up the process of matching documents to applications and help to address the delays in the system. If inheritance tax reporting moved online, this would also help to speed up applications for grants of probate.

The challenges inherent in the way that the digital probate system currently operates are not exclusive to solicitors or professional probate practitioners. When members of the public file their own applications, there is often a risk of missing out information or providing incorrect details, which can cause serious delays with those applications. In our view, it is always best to consult a solicitor when applying for probate.

Thankfully, mistakes made by members of the public can usually be corrected, although not always without a cost.

The government has also announced plans to expand the digital probate system and add additional functionality, which could create new challenges given that the system is not much more efficient in its current form.

As the digital probate system expands, it will be interesting to see whether the process becomes easier in the right ways and whether the delays in the system can be addressed – this will be the real test of whether the system is fit for purpose.

Joe Cobb

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