The Trips and Traps of DIY Probate

With the UK economy still being far from flourishing, virtually everyone is looking to save money, with legal services being one area identified as being potentially expendable.

So when a relative dies, the increasing trend has been for the executors or administrators (known generally as personal representatives) to deal with the estate administration themselves. It is entirely possible to obtain probate and deal with the estate without ever having to see a solicitor, with personal applications to the probate registry costing approximately £215 – a noticeable saving on solicitor’s fees. This option also offers families the opportunity to deal with things between themselves, without the associated formality of going to a lawyer to discuss personal matters. The district probate registries are approachable and helpful, and can take some of the intensity out of an already distressing process. You can even now swear your documents at a local solicitor’s rather than having to attend at the registry itself.

However this route is not for the faint-hearted as it does carry some risks, as legal group Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) have recently highlighted.

Many professionally drafted Wills contain trusts to save tax, to avoid those who inherit paying care fees and to reduce the likelihood of potential disputes. SFE members have noticed an increase in ‘DIYers’ returning to them to seek advice when they have made a mistake or find the paperwork too tricky. Mrs A’s Will had included a tax saving trust, but when her husband administered the estate, he paid the whole estate to himself. The solicitor was thankfully able to sort out the matter and avoid future complications occurring when Mr A eventually dies. In Mr G’s case, he sold some shares that had made a gain during the administration of his late sister’s estate and had to pay tax. If he had transferred the shares to himself first, before selling them, he could have avoided the tax.

A specialist probate research company, Title Research, has also identified that DIY probates are increasing the risk of tax fraud and the incorrect distribution of assets. Having reviewed government statistics, they say that the share of probates undertaken by solicitors fell by by 7% over the five year period between 2004 and 2009 from 72% to 65%. As the economy has floundered and the use of the internet has increased, the current figure is likely to be less again. In turn, an almost inevitable effect of fewer people using solicitors or other professional advisers is going to be the incorrect or even fraudulent distributions of estates and inheritance tax (IHT) evasion. The idea that relatives can save on solicitors’ fees might be an attractive one, but probate and IHT are incredibly complex areas and the chances of making a costly mistake are high.

It was also suggested that the rise in DIY probate could, in part, explain why there are an increasing number of legal disputes over inheritance that reach the courts and perhaps why HM Revenue & Customs are now so concerned over IHT evasion. There has been an 85% leap in the number of high court cases launched by claimants dissatisfied with their inheritance. Such disputes can dissipate the assets of an estate very quickly, so DIY probate can be a false economy.

A lot of these issues can be resolved over time, but it is obviously better that they be avoided altogether. As a personal representative carries a certain amount of personal liability in their role, they can be opened up to substantial legal claims. There are lots of ways to slip up, if corners are cut, or the personal representatives are unaware of the laws and their obligations, especially when the deceased did not leave a Will. The caveat should therefore always be that if in any doubt, seek professional advice, otherwise the £215 personal application may turn into a legal claim of thousands.

helen-webster-homeHere at Ridley & Hall, we have a qualified and experienced team who can assist you deal with the administration of an estate as much as you need us to. We are always here to help you at a difficult and distressing time and can usually offer you a quote for a fixed fee at the end of an initial meeting. Should you wish to discuss the matter further please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Private Client department on 01484 538421.