Estate Administration Delays as a Result of COVID

According to figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the current average waiting time for grants of probate is 35 working days (April 2021).

During the last quarter of 2020, the wait time was running at around seven weeks; with the MoJ stating that seven weeks had been a typical timeframe throughout the pandemic and the median being five weeks. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not necessarily a true reflection and that delays were, in many cases, significantly more protracted.

The MoJ says the average wait time for a grant application which was processed without being “stopped” was under five weeks, while those that were stopped took, on average, 12 weeks before they were issued. The wait for letters of administration without a Will took around nine weeks, while letters of administration with a Will took around 14 weeks.

What can “stop” an application?

Applications can be stopped if an error on the application is identified or if the processing team requires more information. A stop may also be placed on the application if there is a dispute over who can apply for grant of probate.

How long will probate take?

The current average time taken to complete the probate process is around seven to 12 months for straightforward estates without any probate disputes arising. However, the COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm which caused significant delays for many.

For estates in which the sale of property was at the heart of the process, delays have caused significant problems for estate administrators.

The property market has been under considerable strain throughout the pandemic, with a backlog in the number of probate properties waiting to be sold despite the stamp duty holiday seeing increased interest from buyers across the market. And the impending end of the SDLT holiday, in September, is now exacerbating the problems of increased demand.

Pandemic restrictions and workplace social distancing measures has meant skeleton staffing and reduced service provision among surveyors, estate agents, probate solicitors, and residential conveyancing solicitors alike and this has naturally made almost all processes take longer and with delays apparent across the UK.

Such delays can be a concern for estate administrators, especially as Inheritance Tax (IHT) must be paid within six months of the date of death and before grant of probate can be issued. However, when the property is the predominant asset in an estate and its sale is necessary for payment to be fulfilled, HMRC may accept staged payments of IHT prior to the sale with the balance being paid once funds are liquid.

Putting property up for sale before probate is granted

There is no legal reason to stop estate administrators putting a probate property on the market before they have received grant of probate or letters of administration, however, this course of action comes with a warning that the sale could fall through if the grant is not received in time. Contracts of sale cannot be exchanged before the grant is received and current anecdotal evidence reveals that buyers and sellers are having to pull out of property chains as a result because the wait times for grant of probate are too long and unpredictable.

In the past, in certain urgent circumstances, such as when a property sale was about to fall through and the sale of property was agreed prior to death, a request could be made to the Probate Registry to have the grant application expedited, but, during the pandemic, some applicants were told this is no longer the case and this is just one more factor in the delays and general uncertainty surrounding probate during the pandemic.

What can you do to speed up probate?

With lockdown easing it is hoped that all the service sectors involved in the probate process will soon be able to get back to full strength with near-to-normal system levels resuming.

From 11 January 2021, it has been mandatory (except for certain prescribed exceptions) for probate applications to be made digitally whether the application is being made by the estate administrator in person or by a probate solicitor and while the latest case management system got off to an initially shaky start when introduced in 2019, the new centralised system run by Birmingham Courts and Tribunals Service will hopefully be at full speed very shortly with an aim to reducing delays.

As an estate administrator, the best way to ensure that probate runs smoothly is to seek professional advice from probate solicitors who are experienced in this field and have all the systems in place to handle your estate administration needs efficiently and accurately.

Contact Wellers today for professional, qualified expertise relating to probate and residential conveyancing.

Our regional offices in London, Surrey and Kent have local knowledge that can help keep the probate process on track and as efficient as possible.