Probate Registry Office Closure

 

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has announced that the Probate Registry Office in Birmingham will be closing at the end of the month.  This is the first announced closure with further closures expected across the country as the Probate Service attempts to undertake more work electronically.  There will therefore no longer be a Probate Service public counter at the Priory Court building in Birmingham and all applications will now be dealt with by Newcastle Probate Registry instead.

 

‘Cause if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it…

 

The rise of cohabiting couples has continued in the UK, with the numbers growing by 25% to 3.4 million families from 2008 to 2018.

Cohabiting couples however still only represent 18 per cent of the UK’s 19.1 million families. Marriages and civil partnerships remain the most common structure and, as such, represent two-thirds of all families.  Although only 10 years ago, marriages and civil partnerships accounted for almost 70 per cent of families.

The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners warn that only marriage and civil partnerships grant legal rights and responsibilities to partners, at least in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland updated its law to reflect the number of unmarried cohabiting couples with the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, but it does not provide the same matrimonial rights as married persons have.

Despite the common myth, common-law marriage is not recognised by the law of England and Wales or Northern Ireland, in fact common-law marriage was abolished in 1753. You need to be married or in a civil partnership to rely on the law for dividing up finances if you split up or if one of you dies. It makes no difference if you have children with the person you live with. 

It is therefore imperative for those who are unmarried to ensure they have a valid Will in place providing for their partner, as the law simply does not recognise cohabiting couples where there is no Will.  Should one party to the relationship pass away without a Will, it can leave the surviving partner in a very difficult position. 

Modern Family Structures and Unintended Consequences

 

When couples talk to me about making a Will, they often ask what would happen if they both died together in a car crash-who would inherit their assets if they didn’t have a Will. Answer-in the legal world, where the order of death is uncertain, the older partner is assumed to have died first.

A tragic case has just been reported where a married couple, who each had a daughter from previous relationships, sadly died of hypothermia in 2016 and were found in their house a week later; Mr Scarle was 79 and his wife, Mrs Scarle, 69. The presumption was therefore that Mr Scarle died first being 10 years older, meaning his assets would then pass to his Wife under the intestacy rules and then on to Mrs Scarle’s daughter. Mr Scarle’s daughter would receive nothing.

Mr Scarle’s daughter is challenging the decision saying that it was much more likely that Mrs Scarle died first due to her medical condition (she had suffered a stroke in 1998) and was generally in poor health. If she can produce clear evidence that Mrs Scarle died first then it is Mr Scarle’s daughter who would inherit the entire estate. The decision on the case is to be given at a later date.

This is a sad and rare case but it does highlight the need for professional advice where there are complex family structures if you wish to avoid disputes in the future. A solicitor specialising in Wills would have addressed the issue of how to ensure each of their children could have benefitted when they had both passed away.

Probate Fees Update

 

The proposed considerable increases in Probate Court fees have yet to materialise, despite concerns that these would be brought in on the 1st April 2019.  With Parliamentary timetabling, the earliest these could be reviewed would be the start of the Autumn session.  However, there will be an increase in the price of obtaining a copy of a Grant from £0.50 to £1.50 as of the 22nd July 2019. 

The proposed considerable increases in Probate Court fees have yet to materialise, despite concerns that these would be brought in on the 1st April 2019.  With Parliamentary timetabling, the earliest these could be reviewed would be the start of the Autumn session.  However, there will be an increase in the price of obtaining a copy of a Grant from £0.50 to £1.50 as of the 22nd July 2019. 

Probate Registry Delays

 

It has been widely reported in the press in recent months of the considerable backlog of work that the Probate Registries in England and Wales are facing.  Whereas in previous years, a Grant of Representation often took 10 days to be issued from the outset of the application, Solicitors are reporting applications taking an average of 8 weeks with some cases taking in excess of 13 – 15 weeks.

The delays have been caused due to the Probate Court Service having transitioned to a new IT system in January of this year; a system which seems fraught with teething problems; and also the Government’s proposed increases in probate court fees which were originally due to be brought into force on the 1st April, meaning the Probate Registries were flooded with applications in March, ahead of the date of the proposed changes. 

The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) at the end of June, together with The Law Society and Solicitors for the Elderly, to obtain an update on the delays and disruption to the probate service.

 

HMCTS gave the following update on work undertaken since the 14th May:-

 

  • They have taken on 30 new staff since the transfer to the new IT system.
  • They currently have 180 employees working across the Probate Service, having recruited additional legal advisors with probate experience.
  • HMCTS is now issuing approximately 20,000 grants a month.
  • Applications are being dealt with in date order, with the oldest first.
  • Grants are not being prioritised according to urgency and such applications based on urgency are not being granted.
  • The current timescale is 6-8 weeks for applications to be dealt with.
  • There will not be any refund of probate fees made due to the delays.

 

HMCTS anticipates that once its new digital system is fully up and running, there will be less scope for administrative and human errors. Users will be able to track applications and make corrections online.

STEP are due to meet with HMCTS for a further update at that time.  However, practitioners continue to report delays in excess of the timescales currently being given by HMCTS, meaning there are many bereaved people being left in limbo by the current chaos.

Should you require help with the administration of an estate, please get in touch with Rebecca Head on 01543 440308.

Gifts to Charity

 

Giving money to charity in your Will is a lovely way to leave a positive legacy for the future.  People leave:

  1. Cash sums
  2. Property
  3. A share, or the whole, of their estate.

There can be tax advantages to leaving money to charity in your Will.

Legacies left to UK charities now exceed GBP3 billion a year, up by 10 per cent on last year, according to figures from the wills notification service Smee & Ford. More than 10,400 individual charities were named in wills in 2018, the highest number ever recorded. You might be interested to know that the most popular causes are places of worship.

If you would like to leave a gift to charity in your Will, please contact Joanna or Rebecca.