Probate fees – a tax by any other name

 

The Ministry of Justice announced the consultation on probate fees last week.

 

https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/fee-proposals-for-grants-of-probate/supporting_documents/probateconsultation.pdf

 

 

It is thought that new fee increases could be made effective from as soon as April 1 2016 – and there are many practitioners across the country who believe that this set of fee increases on probate fees is unjust, disproportionate and unfair.

 

Not only might these fees be unfair and disproportionate (the actual task of getting the grant of probate is already covered by the cost of the existing court fee) but the potential to charge quite high values of fees is seen by some as being similar to a tax.  Except the power to increase a tax is something that is given far higher scrutiny, both in the budget and in reactions to the budget – there is opportunity for more careful examination of the impact that increases in the tax burden will have on the behaviour of the populace – indeed, sometimes the reason for increasing taxes is so that the behaviour of the public is modified – towards the purchase of cars that consume less fuel, towards the purchase of particular types of alcohol – it is the primary example of applying a “nudge” philosophy – or behaviourist psychology techniques – encourage certain types of behaviour by reward, discourage certain behaviour by withholding reward (or rather, by making the retained money in your wallet significantly less).

 

Value of estate (before inheritance tax)             Existing fee       Proposed fee

Below £50,000 or exempt                                            £215                £0

Exceeds £50,000 but does not exceed £300,000    £215                £300

Exceeds £300,000 but does not exceed £500,000   £215                £1,000

Exceeds £500,000 but does not exceed £1m               £215                £4,000

Exceeds £1m but does not exceed 1.6m                       £215                £8,000

Exceeds £1.6m but does not exceed £2m                     £215                £12,000

Above £2m                                                                          £215                £20,000

 

Why would these increases be unfair?  Everything has to be paid for?

 

The probate court fees are already appropriate – the costs that are already being charged cover the cost of obtaining a one off service – this is a finite transaction – there are no ongoing case management issues – once the grant has issued, the court has no need for further supervision and intervention.  As a fee for a service, the fee is suitable.  To increase the fee so that it substantially exceeds the cost is unjust and unfair.

 

Obtaining a grant of probate is the rite of passage in most estates where there are assets that exceed £25,000 or thereabouts, since banks and building societies are frequently willing to release that sort of money without the need for any formalities.  In addition, there are many people who own assets jointly with a spouse or partner – and in those cases where assets are owned jointly, there is no need for a grant of probate in order for the asset to belong to the survivor.

 

So that’s alright then – all we have to do is to put assets in joint names and we’re golden?

 

Well, yes and no – just because assets are in joint names doesn’t mean that this is the best thing for an individual.  Putting assets in joint names whilst you are alive means that the other person can spend your money as if it was their own – potentially wiping out your savings and leaving you in a difficult situation.  If you were a vulnerable elderly person, you might be taken advantage of.

 

Putting assets in joint names can also have the effect that you are treated for some purposes as if you had made a gift of what you own – if the relationship you have with the other joint owner should become difficult, or they should themselves be in financial difficulties, your own money might be lost.

 

Just because someone receives money by survivorship after death does not mean that Inheritance Tax should not be paid on the estate.  Although the application for the grant of probate normally triggers the requirement to pay Inheritance Tax, the obligation to account for Inheritance Tax still applies, whether or not a grant of probate is required.  This is something that the public might easily not be aware of.  Failure to account to the Inland Revenue for tax that is due causes penalties in itself.  Failure to pay the tax that is due can cause penalties, and is likely to result in charges for underpaid tax and the interest on that tax.  Potentially, this means that problems can be stored up for the future, all because there was a desire not to pay this probate fee.    Trying to untangle what taxes should have been paid, the penalties and interest will be very stressful for families later on.

 

What do I do if I’m single? 

 

Good point  – you are going to need a grant of probate.  No matter who you leave your money to – even if you leave all that you have to charity, this bill will still have to be paid.  There is no Inheritance Tax to pay when you leave all your assets to charity, but still the probate fee will apply.

 

I thought it was free to leave everything to my wife?  Now you say she will have to pay?

 

Your executors will have to pay the probate fee, even if all that you have passes outright to your wife.  If you have made arrangements to give your wife everything for life, and then to go to your children (perhaps because you have been married before) then even though there is no Inheritance Tax to pay, there will be a probate fee.

 

How will my executors pay those massive fees?

 

Yes, that’s a problem.  When it is Inheritance Tax, you can pay a portion of your tax bill in instalments if your money is tied up in your house.   Usually your bank will only allow payments to be made for Inheritance Tax and for your funeral bill.  Perhaps the banks will start to allow payments to be made for probate fees.  It might take them a little while to get structures in place though.  Until then, it will be for your executors to produce the money out of their own pocket.  If they don’t have the money, they will have to borrow it.

 

This really sounds like a bad idea – who thought it up?

 

Yes it does.  And I can’t actually point to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and blame him for making the rules.  Still – it is “open for consultation” so feel free to comment directly.

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Law Society research: millions of Britons have no will – The Law Society

Law Society research: millions of Britons have no will – The Law Society.

 

It is, as we have said for a long time, the exception rather than the rule.  Somewhat horrifying to think that over two thirds of us do not have wills.

I’m dealing with some intestacies at the moment, and practically speaking, although we can deal with things amicably  (hopefully) within a family, the extra work involved, and the trauma for the family of deciding who is going to do what, who is going to be responsible for making difficult decisions, and the fact that no-one is immediately able to do things on behalf of the estate is tragic.  For less than £200, the client could have saved hours of worry, hours of legal time, so much angst and family difficulties, and prevented the delay in administration – if there had been a will, the house could be on the market now – the estate agents will not risk signing a contract with someone who may not be the administrator, or they might not get their money back.

That is just the problem – Lasting Powers of Attorney are needed in lifetime to make life easier and better for the living who are vulnerable.  Wills are your last chance to make things easier for those you leave behind.  And if you are not a single person with no spouse or children, or grandchildren, then there are all those who are depending on you.  And wishing that you had appointed guardians, and made things clear for you.

What is a grant of probate?

A grant of probate is the word used to describe the process of confirming the right of named individuals to deal lawfully with the estate of a person who has died.

If a person has died leaving a will, then the people who are named as executors are those people entitled to take out the grant of probate. The authority of an executor to act stems from the will itself, and is confirmed by the grant of probate.

If the person has died without leaving a will, or has died leaving a will, but the executors have predeceased, then there is a statutory order of who is entitled to take out the grant of letters of administration. The authority of the administrators stems from the grant of letters of administration itself.

In order to pass through the process of the court, the executors, or prospective administrators must complete an oath, whereby they swear the extent of the estate, the full name and address of the person who has died, details of the deceased’s birth and death and age at death, together with any other names by which the deceased was known. The Personal Representatives also swear that the deceased was domiciled in England and Wales and that the will attached was the last known will of the deceased.

In addition to citing the basic facts, the PRs also state that the estate was of a certain value. They then go on to promise that they will deliver up to the court accounts of the estate if requested, will gather in and distribute the assets and pay the liabilities lawfully.

If the assets are relatively few, and Inheritance Tax does not need to be paid (and there are no complicating features of the estate), then the probate registry will accept a short Inland Revenue form citing the values of the items in the estate. If the value of the estate is high (or if there are complicating features) then the longer form needs to be filled in. This long form asks more detailed questions, but both documents need to be completed with a care for the detail that is appropriate – it is not enough to make an estimate of value if you are not making an effort – if in doubt, employ someone who can tell you how much that Meissen china or that Georgian silverware is worth. If your dad was into antiques, then get a valuation – if it is all reproduction, then perhaps it might not be a high value after all. If you are claiming a transferrable tax band, then you will also need to be able to show this on the relevant form – whether it is a short form that is appropriate or a long form.

So – you tell the Inland Revenue what the estate is worth, and pay the tax (or a proportion of the tax). You take the oath and swear (on the Bible, Koran, other religious text, or solemnly affirm) the oath saying you will do the right thing. And then submit the documents to the probate registry, who, in due course, send a grant of probate. Congratulations – the will has been proved, is now a document of public record, against which you can be held to account. You may now collect in the assets, pay debts, and deal with the estate according to the law. In the case of there being no will – your authority starts now, and you may collect in assets and enter into contracts on behalf of the estate (as opposed to in your own name).

 

Essential Principles for Executors when completing an IHT400 return

When applying for a grant of probate, Executors generally complete two declarations.  One is on oath, when the probate application is sworn.  One is the statement to the Inland Revenue of the financial value of the estate for taxation purposes.

 

When completing the IHT400 in a taxable estate, the executors need to be aware that they are making official statements to the Inland Revenue.  These are listed at page 12 (box 119) of the form.  The executors, when signing the form state (in brief) that:

 

a)      They have made the fullest enquiries reasonably practicable in the circumstances and that should any values be estimated, they will inform the Inland Revenue of these as soon as they know it.

b)      That where spousal relief is being claimed, the executors have done their best to ascertain that the deceased was legally married to the surviving spouse

c)      That they understand that they may be liable to prosecution if they deliberately conceal any information that affects the liability to Inheritance Tax arising on the deceased’s death or if they deliberately include information in the account that they know to be false

d)      That they understand that they will have to pay penalties if the account is delivered late or contains false information that they fail to remedy within a reasonable time.

e)      That they understand that the submission of the form does not guarantee that the Inland Revenue has accepted the facts are as stated

f)       That the Inland Revenue may investigate the estate in detail after the Grant of Administration.

 

The executors should also be aware that the new rules on penalties apply to Inheritance Tax, just as much as to Income Tax and any other tax.  Inheritance tax can face penalties of up to 100% of the tax due, depending on the severity of the error in the account  (whether it was deliberate or careless, concealed or without concealment )and what assistance the taxpayer has given to the Inland Revenue to put matters right, and how speedily any error was noticed and rectified.

 

For more information on the penalty regime, please see http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/about/new-penalties/faqs.htm#39