Making your views heard on probate and more
With an ongoing mission to nurture and enhance the UK charitable Will-writing environment, Remember A Charity has teamed up with the Institute of Legacy Management (ILM) on two key policy submissions for the sector over the turn of the year; the Probate Inquiry and the Law Commission’s Wills Project.
Probate delays and reform of the national legislatory environment for Wills are two of the most prominent issues on our policy agenda for 2024, alongside protecting and developing crucial fiscal incentives for legacy giving and the lack of a notification service in Scotland.
Thank you to all those who contributed to our recent surveys and shared your views, enabling us to compile a representative sector response on both issues. Here, we summarise the key points from the joint submissions.
The Probate Inquiry
The purpose of the Justice Committee’s Probate Inquiry was to gather views from a wide range of stakeholders to understand their experiences of the Probate Registry, what the problems are and what could be done to improve the service.
In our collective response, we highlighted the impact of probate delays not only on bereaved families, but on charities, which have become increasingly reliant on income from gifts in Wills. Despite HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) investing in new staff and other measures to improve service levels, 2023 was another challenging year for the Probate Registry. Waiting times increased and the number of probate cases in the system continued to climb as applications reached record levels, with the number of grants issued failing to keep pace.
However, performance picked up considerably from September, with an average of almost 27,000 grants being issued per month between September and November, compared with a monthly average of 22,000 from January to August. From September, the volume of unprocessed estates in the system is understood to have dropped by about 13,000 cases – positive progress that we hope will continue through 2024.
With over £800 million of legacy income estimated to be held in unprocessed grant applications, our submission highlighted the significant impact on charities’ cashflow and their ability to plan and deliver urgently needed services. Drawing on members’ experiences, we demonstrated that delays can mask how much legacy income is in the system, making forecasting extremely challenging, and – as some charities reported - leading to a reduction in budget levels for 2024. As such, we emphasised the need for HMCTS to be allocated sufficient resources to deal with the long-term increase in caseloads.
In our response, we also highlighted the importance of HMCTS’s commitment to work with us to address the sector's concerns, with both Remember A Charity and ILM contributing to the Probate Service Users working group and collaborating on future service design. This has led to the Probate Registry’s commitment to implement a charitable indicator on estates at probate, which will help the sector to identify the volume of estates that include a charitable bequest and enable clearer reporting on those applications as they move through the system. We believe that this has the potential to transform the sector’s forecasting abilities. HMCTS has also agreed to provide more regular updates and sector webinars.
The Wills Project
In December, Remember A Charity and the ILM filed a joint submission to the Law Commission’s supplementary consultation on the Wills Project, looking at two areas of proposed reform – electronic Wills and revocation of a Will on marriage. Our response focused on how these reforms could protect people’s final wishes and ensure legacy gifts reach their intended beneficiaries.
Recognising the technological advances and the digitisation of so many elements of the Wills landscape, we take the view that electronic Wills are most likely a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. The advantages of electronic Wills are of course that they could increase accessibility, making it easier for people to write or amend their Will, particularly for those who can’t leave their homes and those with disabilities. But our submission emphasises how crucial it is that sufficient safeguarding measures are in place, particularly when it comes to protecting those who may be vulnerable. This includes ensuring that electronic Wills must have verification from unbiased, independent witnesses, in a similar fashion to paper-based ones.
We noted too that electronic Wills may also pave the way for a more unified approach to Will storage and registration, helping to protect legators’ final wishes, and ensuring their Wills are more easily found when the time comes.
Revocation on marriage or civil partnership
When it comes to the revocation of Wills – where current rules determine that a former Will becomes null and void on marriage or civil partnership – our response to the Law Commission highlights the risk of current legislation being prone to abuse by those wish to gain access to an individual’s estate. This is clear from the widely-reported case of Joan Blass, which was devastating for her relatives and loved ones.
Not only is this issue of ‘predatory marriage’ of great concern for testators and their families, but the current set-up makes it all too easy for legacy gifts to be unintentionally lost when a supporter marries. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact there is very little public awareness around the current rules.
Given that few people are aware of the current law, our submission highlights the need for a public awareness campaign. We believe it’s crucial that people are aware of how the law might affect their personal circumstances so that they can take appropriate steps to make sure their final wishes are carried out.
We will of course be monitoring the next stages of these consultations and keep you updated. If you want to speak about the consultation or other challenges, you see in the legacy policy space please get in touch with us at email@example.com.