The Probate service: reducing stopped applications and improving

February 2, 2024

Deputy Service Manager at HMCTS, Stephen Burgess has accumulated a wealth of experience in his 25+ years working in Probate. He recently wrote about the process for personal and professional probate applications. In this post he shares the common reasons for applications to be stopped and how the service is improving.

It takes roughly double the amount of time to deal with a ‘stopped’ case as it does a ‘right first time’ case so if we can reduce the number of stops it really increases our productivity. That means everyone can get their grants faster, so we’re always looking at ways we can improve the service to reduce stopped applications.

  • Common reasons for stopped applications

Our top reason for stopping an application is related to inheritance tax (IHT), in particular the IHT400, when a person is required to supply an account with HMRC and use that to apply for probate.

Previously, this was a solely paper process and it worked well, but when Covid happened and processes moved online, there were a number of issues, mainly people applying before they had confirmation their HMRC form had been processed.

We’ve been working with HMRC to find a solution and next year, HMRC will begin sending applicants a code, enabling them to apply for probate. Once the code lands with us, we won’t need anything else. In 2022, 9,000 applications were stopped for this reason so we’re hoping this will reduce delays.

Another issue causing a lot of stops is applicants failing to list all of the executors. A will can have up to four executors, but often the applicant won’t mention there is more than one. We check the will and have to request more information, all of this takes time.

Problems with the condition of a will can also cause stops. Sometimes we receive a will with staple holes or a torn edge which we must check. We need to ask if something important like a covering letter from a bank or a part of the will is missing.

For citizen applications, we’ve built questions into the system, although we can still go back and ask for more information, even to the extent of speaking to the witnesses if something doesn’t sound quite right.

For solicitors, we’ve left space where they can provide extra information about the condition of the will. As a result, we’ve seen the percentage of stops come down for professional and personal applications.

The validity of a will is also a potential stop reason, and we always do those technical checks. Wills have to be made and executed according to the Wills Act, so they need to be dated, witnessed by two people, signed by the testator and have an attestation clause.

Typically, it’s homemade wills that tend to cause issues. If someone buys a will template, they may just write their name instead of signing it, or perhaps forget to date it.

Unfortunately, some wills haven’t been signed or witnessed and we have to go back to the family and tell them it’s not a valid will and it falls under the rules of intestacy.

  • Listening to feedback

When the service first went digital in 2019, we were criticised by solicitors who said it wasn’t very user-friendly and didn’t fully meet their needs. We listened to those comments and improved the service, and it’s come a long way since those early days. I’m not getting dozens of emails a day saying something is wrong – these days I might get one email every few weeks which I take as a good sign.

We really value feedback though and, if our users have a problem that can’t be resolved by email, then we’ll join a Teams call to find a solution.

  • Information and improvements

Management information is important and very useful. We get daily reports on the cases we’ve stopped and they’re converted to charts so we can compare to previous months. It means if we make a change, we can look at the data and see if they’re having the impact we hoped for. We know volumes haven’t been where we want them to be, and timeliness is 11 weeks on digital applications and probably over 20 weeks on paper applications.

We have a new senior management team who have brought new ideas and we’re starting to see improvements in timeliness. We know timeliness hasn’t been great over the summer, particularly with paper cases, which impacts solicitors the most, so we’re trying to upskill the team quickly to make sure everyone can work on different types of cases.

  • A message to charities

We speak to, and meet regularly with, Matthew and James at the ILM, and I know members have been quite frustrated. We always set high expectations of what we want to achieve and it’s quite frustrating when we don’t manage that, especially as legacies are so important to the work of charities. What I would say is that performance over the past few weeks has greatly improved and hopefully the charitable sector is seeing an upswing too.

We’re in a much better position now and are feeling a lot more positive – we set a record recently when we issued the most grants in history on one day, in excess of 1,300. We’re starting to see caseloads come down and timeliness improve and while there’s more to do we’re heading in the right direction.


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