Paper probate applications are taking up to six months, but going online is faster:
Probate is a vital step to gain control over an estate after someone dies
Bereaved people are waiting six weeks on average, say lawyers
But paper applications can take much longer than going online, they say
Mistakes and missing documents 'stop' an application and also cause delays
How to avoid probate delays: Find tips to pre-empt common errors below
PUBLISHED: 07:00, 2 December 2022 | UPDATED: 08:15, 2 December 2022
Bereaved people trying to unlock estates are waiting six weeks on average to obtain probate, but, using paper forms or making mistakes can mean delays of up to six months, warn lawyers.
Applying for probate is a vital step to gain control over an estate after someone dies, and the Government says on its relevant webpage that it takes longer with a paper form than doing it online.
Paper applications are currently taking around five to six months to be approved, according to feedback from members and the public to the Law Society.
However, an HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said: 'Probate applications are being processed in five weeks on average – almost one week quicker than they were last year.
'We have hired more staff to meet higher demand and bring down processing times further.'
Some cases that are 'stopped' and sent to the back of the queue due to missing documents or errors in the application can also take up to 20 weeks, according to the national organisation Solicitors for the Elderly.
Lawyers estimated the waiting time for probate at six to nine weeks at the start of this year, when the application fee was hiked to £273 for estates worth £5,000-plus. The fee is waived for estates worth £5,000 or less.
A few years ago, families experienced long delays as the probate service was hit by a rush to beat Government plans to vastly increase fees, which were then scrapped before being introduced.
This coincided with a drastic overhaul involving staff cuts, office closures, new IT systems and changes to work processes.
Below, Solicitors for the Elderly chair Michael Culver gives tips on ensuring your probate application is not delayed, including getting a lawyer to review it for a fixed fee before it is submitted.
"Some cases can take up to 20 weeks if the application is stopped. This could be down to errors in the application or missing documents. Once an application is stopped, it goes to the back of the queue and new cases take priority" Michael Culver, chair of Solicitors for the Elderly
He also suggests that if you need to pay inheritance tax first, you should wait 25 rather than the recommended 20 days before moving on to applying for probate. Culver explains this is because the lack of a response from HMRC is one of the main causes of probate applications being 'stopped'.
Probate delays are decreasing, but people face significant wait times if their applications are stopped for some reason, he notes.
'Most probate applications are now taking six weeks on average,' says Culver. 'However, some cases can take up to 20 weeks if the application is stopped.
'This could be down to errors in the application or missing documents. Once an application is stopped, it goes to the back of the queue and new cases take priority.
'Lengthy delays can be exhausting for grieving families already managing the distress of losing a loved one.
'We'd always recommend speaking with a legal professional, such as an SFE lawyer, who is specialised in this area of law. They'll be able to ensure the application is carefully prepared and will aim to make the process as quick and simple as possible.'
>> Read more tips from Culver below, including what is involved in getting a fixed-fee review before you submit an online probate application.
Emily Deane, technical counsel at the STEP trade body of inheritance professionals, says: 'It is concerning that grieving families are having to wait so long for probate to be granted.
'HM Courts and Tribunals Service has informed STEP that it is bringing in a significant number of trained staff to deal with the backlog of probate applications in addition to new staff to boost its capacity on the call centre customer service.
'We hope that this increase in resources will produce a notable improvement in delays and a reduction in the backlog of applications which is currently causing distress and frustration.'
STEP notes that the HMCTS is urging people to apply for probate using the online service, stating that users will receive the grant faster than if they use the traditional paper service.
A Law Society spokesperson says: 'We have been aware of the probate service delays for some time. The service must allow executors to settle a loved one's estate in a reasonable timeframe.
'Our members and the public tell us these delays appear to be primarily around paper applications, which they say are taking around five to six months to be approved.
HMCTS provided the following guidance on the probate process at present.
Our latest data shows that we are speeding up applications being granted.
Correctly completed applications, which do not need to be stopped due an error or missing documentation, are being processed within three weeks on average.
The quoted figure of 20 weeks being needed to complete an application is misleading, since it includes stopped cases where the process is stalled by waiting for the applicant to resolve an error they have made, or when they have not sent all the documents needed (such as an inheritance tax form or original will).
We are continuing to have high volumes of probate applications post-Covid and with excess deaths having run higher than the five-year average until end of this summer. Our focus is on trying to reduce the wait time for paper applications which are more complex and take longer. As with any court proceedings, there will be instances where cases take longer than others due to their complexity or additional information being needed from the applicant.
HMCTS has informed STEP it is bringing in a significant number of trained staff to deal with the backlog of probate applications in addition to new staff to boost its capacity on call centre customer service
'Our members are also frustrated by HMCTS's lack of clarity on response times. They're keen for HMCTS to give realistic timescales to allow them to manage client expectations. 'How to avoid probate delays'
If you're handling the probate process yourself, then SFE chair Michael Culver suggests the following tips to pre-empt some of the common problems.
1. If in doubt, seek out an SFE member to review your application before you submit it. Many of our members will happily review and feedback on any changes required for an agreed fixed fee.
If applying online, you can share your password and log-in details with your solicitor, but usually it will send a code to your email so it's best to do it in the same room where possible, or over the phone.
We'd recommend getting in touch with a lawyer for a fixed fee meeting in the office. We'd ask someone to bring all of their paperwork and log in details ready to review the online application together before making the submission.
In central London you might pay around £300 for a fixed fee one-hour meeting to review the online probate application, but this is assuming there's no inheritance tax payable.
If there are inheritance tax forms to check, it wouldn't be a fixed fee as it would likely take three to four hours of additional work and the total could be closer to £1,000. This will differ per region and per firm.
2. If tax is payable wait 25 working days from sending the inheritance tax paperwork to HMRC before applying for probate.
This is recommended even if HMRC have confirmed receipt of the paperwork in the meantime, in order to give them time to share the paperwork with the tax service.
The lack of a response from HMRC is one of the main causes for an application being stopped.
3. Ensure all names match those within the will or explain why if there is a difference.
4. Explain why one executor isn't applying for the grant if appropriate.
5. Ensure all documents including the original will are included when sending documents to HMCTS.
6. If there is no will, make sure you explain why you are entitled to apply for the grant.