Dealing with matters following a death can be a difficult and emotional process at the best of times. With the country on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, many are increasingly concerned about how to proceed – and if it is even possible to proceed – with probate at this time.
Although certain elements have been adapted to reflect the social distancing measures in place, it is still possible to carry out the probate process at the moment. Here, we answer some key questions.
How can I register a death at the moment?
The Coronavirus Bill has recently amended where and how deaths can be registered.
On a temporary basis, deaths can now be registered over the phone to keep in line with social distancing requirements. Cause of death certificates issued by doctors, which ordinarily have to be presented in person, can now be submitted electronically.
Payment can be taken over the phone for any copy death certificates and the certificates can be posted out to you.
In addition, it is now possible for a funeral director who is responsible for the arrangement of the funeral to register the death; so long as they are authorised to provide the information to the registrar by a relative.
What about notifying banks and other financial institutions?
Usually you would need to present an original death certificate to an asset holder either by going into a branch or by post.
A number of bank and investment companies have now launched online portals where you can upload information from the death certificate to assist with the notification process. It is a good idea to speak to the asset holders and ask what their requirements are in the current circumstances.
Can a Grant of Probate be applied for at the moment?
The HM Courts & Tribunals Service recently launched an online probate service for legal professionals representing executors. Thomson Snell & Passmore’s probate team has been an early adopter of this new offering.
A new feature has been introduced which also allows professional users to apply for most types of Grants of Representation online. As part of this, firms no longer need to complete paper statements of truth and can also manage and monitor all their probate applications submitted this way through an online dashboard.
Our team had been using this service before COVID-19 struck, to further improve our probate offering, so is well used to the new system.
Inevitably Grants are taking longer to obtain from the Probate Registry in these unprecedented times with applications being dealt with on a strict date of application basis.
What about signing forms, for example for Inheritance Tax?
Due to the current situation, HMRC-IHT is relaxing its rules on the signing of documents. During the lockdown, HMRC-IHT will allow the agent acting on behalf of an estate to sign on behalf of the personal representative or trustees, so long as the named account remains the same.
If a change of account is needed all parties who originally signed the IHT 400 or IHT 100 forms must still sign the letter. However, HMRC-IHT will recognise printed signatures for these forms if a professional agent is acting on behalf of the estate and
- The names and other personal details of the legal personal representatives or trustees are shown on the declaration page
- The account includes a clear statement from the agent to confirm that all the legal personal representatives or trustees have seen the account and have agreed to be bound by the declaration.
Does inheritance tax still have to be paid in the usual way?
If an estate is subject to Inheritance Tax (IHT), the estate will be required to settle all IHT due on the cash assets before probate is granted and generally executors will want to pay as much of the tax as possible by the end of the sixth month from the date of death. After this period, interest will begin to accrue. HMRC-IHT has not issued any guidance to suggest these deadlines will be relaxed during COVID-19.
It is worth noting that the IHT rates of interest were reduced on 7 April 2020 to 2.60% for late payments and 0.50% on repayments.
However, HMRC-IHT has said it will no longer be accepting cheques for IHT payments and will also not make repayments using payable orders or cheques.
Until the restrictions are lifted, those acting on behalf of the estate, personal representatives or trustees are advised to use the faster payments (FPI) system or telephone banking facilities, CHAPS or Bacs to HMRC’s account.
Receipts for payment of IHT are taking longer to process at present and this will delay a Grant application moving forward and therefore executors need to be prepared for a longer turnaround time.
How can I get assets valued at this time?
As executors are required to pay inheritance tax in the usual way and within the usual deadlines they will still need to value all estate assets before applying for the Grant of Probate.
Financial assets can be valued in much the same way as they are normally. Banks and building societies can still provide date of death balances for bank accounts, stockbrokers can be contacted for portfolio valuations and shares can be valued using historical market data. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, however, requests for information can take longer than usual and it is, therefore, important that executors make sure they are taking a pro-active approach to estate administration.
The valuation of physical assets, such as buildings, land and personal possessions, is, however, more complicated at the present time. To value such assets requires a physical valuation and, often, travel. Given the current restrictions, not all agents are able to offer such a service at the present time. However, through considered selection of suitably qualified local agents and careful planning as to how the lockdown restrictions can be respected, it is possible for executors to obtain valuations and ensure that they are complying with their duties.
It is important to be cautious and take expert advice to ensure you get realty probate valuations right at this time, especially as there can be tax implications.
Is it still possible to communicate with HMRC in the usual way at the moment, in order to finalise the deceased’s tax affairs?
It is still possible to communicate with HMRC, both by telephone and in writing. HMRC is, however, operating at a reduced service and so it is now important, more than ever to ensure that executors are taking a pro-active approach and any potential queries or complications are ironed out at an early stage with HMRC.
Inevitably, due to HMRC’s reduced workforce and with many working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are delays at HMRC and extended waiting times when contacting HMRC by phone.
Once a Grant of Probate has been obtained, is it still possible to administer an estate?
Once you have a Grant of Probate, it is still possible to close accounts, sell property and collect funds from the estate in one place. While banks and building societies can be accessed via the phone or online, they will still need to have the Grant posted to them. In addition, selling any property could be challenging at this time.
How long will the process take?
Although a lot of the process can be done online, it is likely that the process may take slightly longer than usual.
It is difficult to say how much longer processes will take at the moment due to these unprecedented times. The situation is evolving on an almost daily basis and we are monitoring this closely.
If you have any other questions about the probate process at this time, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. With our live chat function, we’re here to listen to your concerns and queries any time, day or night. The live chat team can signpost you to relevant resources and content and will ensure one of our expert lawyers gets back to you to help as soon as possible.