02:12, April 08 87 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-08 02:12:05
Rise in cost of probate has been delayed by Brexit turmoil

Plans to increase the cost of probate for grieving friends and families sorting out the wills of loved ones are being repeatedly delayed by Brexit, amid a widespread backlash against their implementation.

The proposals, dismissed by critics as a “stealth death tax”, would introduce a sliding scale of charges to replace the current flat rate of £215 for granting official approval of any will.

The increases had been due to come into effect on 1 April but no date has been fixed for a parliamentary motion in the Commons that would pave their way. They were expected to raise £155m a year for the Treasury. Brexit has been blamed for eating into parliamentary time.

A grant of probate in England and Wales is official recognition of the validity of a will and enables any inheritance to be distributed. The procedure is overseen by HM Courts and Tribunals service, an agency answerable to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Before the last general election in 2017, the MoJ abandoned plans to raise £300m a year extra through charging fees of up to £20,000 for large estates. There was widespread opposition at the time.

Since then the department has resurrected what it believes to be a more equitable approach. Under the MoJ’s latest proposals, estates worth less than £50,000 would not have to pay any probate fees, those between £50,000 and £300,000 would pay £250 and the fee will rise thereafter according to the size of the estate. The largest sum would be £6,000 for any inheritance worth more than £2m.

In February, the cost of a death certificate almost tripled from £4 to £11. Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority announced that it was launching an investigation into the costs of funerals which have increased by 6% each year – twice the inflation rate – for the past 14 years.

Earlier this year a parliamentary delegated legislative committee narrowly voted in favour of the probate fee increases. At that point Labour said it would oppose the plan when it comes to the Commons.

That would force a division on the motion that the government appears unconfident of winning while its backbenchers are in revolt over Brexit and party discipline is breaking down.

Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, said: “The government should drop their plans to introduce this stealth death tax. Labour will take every opportunity to block this move. The government should stop trying to sneak these proposals through the parliamentary back door and guarantee there is a full parliamentary debate on these proposals”

Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “The government’s proposed increases to probate fees have been unpopular with both consumers and the legal profession since the very beginning.

“The costs to the courts for granting probate does not change whether the estate is worth £50,000 or £2m. Making larger estates pay more is effectively just increasing the level of inheritance tax by stealth.

“It is inherently unfair to expect the bereaved to subsidise other parts of the courts and tribunal service, particularly in circumstances where they have no other option but to apply for probate. This is a tax on grief.”

Ruth Pyatt, director of Solicitors for the Elderly, is also concerned that the new online probate service will be open to fraud. “With inflated probate fees becoming a reality, possibly as soon as April, people are set to be ripped-off if they are paying more for a service that fails to provide adequate protection,” she said. “The fee hike is expected to raise around £155m a year for the government and, like this verification system, has slipped through any necessary parliamentary scrutiny.”

But a MoJ spokesperson said: “Our system will see thousands of bereaved families paying no probate fees at all – protecting an additional 25,000 estates each year.

“Fees are vital to the effective running of our courts and tribunals, ensuring access to justice and protecting vulnerable victims. The fees order will be made after and subject to an approval motion in the House of Commons. The new fees will come into force 21 days after the order is made.”

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