A post-Covid rise in disputed wills has led to warnings from experts that complex probate should be left to the experts.
Contested probate cases in England and Wales rose in 2019 and 2020, when there were 192 contested wills, the highest number ever recorded. In 2019 cases were 50% higher than in 2018 and the trend is expected to continue.
Solicitors suggest the rise is partly due to people who suffered financially in the pandemic being more motivated to seek larger inheritances. But experts fear that bereaved families using unqualified service providers to deal with these complex cases are missing out on thousands of pounds in tax relief on estates.
The warning also comes after a price hike in the cost of probate earlier this year. Legal experts warn that cutting costs by employing less qualified accountants to do the work is often a false economy that leads to the unintentional loss of substantial allowances.
Richard Denton, partner and head of private clients at London law firm OGR Stock Denton said:
“Unfortunately, we are living in an ever more contentious world, and we are seeing increasing numbers of probate cases where litigation and mediation are needed.
There are a lot of firms that purport or suggest that they deal with administrations of estates and may do up to a certain level, however we often find that there are complexities, particularly where contentious probate or inheritance tax is going to be an issue. Having an experienced professional to advise you on the way through these pitfalls can be worth its weight in gold.”
He explained that it is common for solicitors to take over the estate administration when probate becomes contentious, only to find that allowances and entitlements have not been claimed.
“Without the input from an experienced professional, the client would never know that the amount of tax they are paying is significantly higher than it would have been had they taken professional advice in the first place,” he said.
The cost to unlock a loved one’s estate rose from either £155 or £215 depending on the type of probate needed, to an across-the-board fee of £273. The Ministry of Justice claimed that the hike was needed to help make the creaking probate system more effective.
In recent years there has been significant debate about whether solicitors or accountants are best placed to deal with probate work which, prior to 2014, was a protected area exclusive to solicitors. Since the rules were relaxed many accountancy firms have begun to offer probate services.
Mr Denton maintains however, that many are now coming unstuck as more contentious cases rise.
“We obtain a lot of referral work from accountants who provide the service up to a certain level but aren’t comfortable with doing it when it gets past that level,” he explained.
“There are many services only a solicitor can provide, for example deeds of variation which are often done for tax planning reasons or for asset protection reasons. In addition, when beneficiaries are inheriting significant sums of money a solicitor can advise on wills, powers of attorney or inheritance tax positions.”