Royal London warns staff cuts at the probate service could lead to more families in financial distress

According to Ministry of Justice figures obtained via Freedom of Information (FOI) request by law firm Nockolds, the number of people working at the probate service has reduced by 34.5% between 18/19 and  21/22.

Related topics:  Probate,  trusts
Tabitha Lambie | Editorial assistant, Barcadia Media
13th June 2023
"Often people have life insurance policies where the aim is normally to repay a mortgage and look after the family. However, if it isn’t set up under trust then it counts as part of the estate and can be held up by the probate process."
- Shelley Read, senior technical manager at Royal London

This FOI also revealed a 45% reduction of staff at the executive officer level, with senior executive officers reduced from twelve to one and CEOs from four to two despite new data from the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) revealing an overall increase in probate delays between February and March this year.

Nockolds has warned that they’ve seen “many more cases of this kind over the past year in which bereaved families are at their wits’ end and facing financial difficulties because of these delays.

“As property sales collapse and crucial deadlines to reclaim tax on investment losses are missed. The sharp decline in the number of experienced staff processing probate applications suggests delays may worsen,” Nockolds continued.

The probate service is run by HMCTS, although work such as scanning wills has been outsourced in the past with a report shown to Money Mail in 2021 revealing a 34.5m contract with Exela Technologies office.

Commenting on these staff cuts, an HMCTS spokesperson has said that “since December last year, we have recruited and trained 100 new members of staff which has seen a rapid increase in the number of grants processed – with March seeing the highest number approved since January 2020.

“Over 90% of applications are done digitally and processed within seven weeks on average, but we know delays are frustrating and [are] looking at how we can bring down waiting times further.”

However, Jade Gani, chief executive at Circe Law, believes that “to remove experienced Court staff, only to suffer such severe delays that it results in the necessary recruitment of over a hundred untrained new recruits seems like a series of poor and costly decisions.”

Considering that the majority of these cases will require a higher level of legal knowledge and judgment, Gani felt that “while streamlining the service [should] be welcomed if it brings cost and time savings to those using it, the reverse seems to be the case.”

Likewise, the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) believes this data “confirms the experience of many of STEP’s expert members that a reduction in senior probate service staff is part of the reason for delays to probate being granted.

“These delays can cause significant distress to families who may need probate to resolve financial matters, such as selling the family home. We would recommend that married couples consider joint accounts to help avoid the distress that probate delays can cause.”

Speaking with Shelley Read, senior technical manager at Royal London, she highlighted that “any delays when families are dealing with the estate of a loved one are difficult, but that can be made even worse if the family have financial worries too.”

“Probate confirms who can deal with the estate of a person who has died before the assets can be distributed in accordance with their will. If someone dies without leaving a will, this process can take even longer. And during that time access to finances may be limited. Often people have life insurance policies where the aim is normally to repay a mortgage and look after the family. However, if it isn’t set up under trust then it counts as part of the estate and can be held up by the probate process. 

“Setting up a policy under trust means it isn’t considered part of the estate. This means the time it takes to pay beneficiaries is much shorter and gives the peace of mind that any bills can be dealt with in the meantime. Having joint accounts also means that the money will go to the surviving partner without the need for probate.

“Some companies also offer something called beneficiary nomination which is a simple way that policyholders can nominate whom they want policy proceeds to be paid to in the event of a claim.

“Although pensions are not normally part of the estate, it's worth checking that expression of wish forms have been filled in so no delays are encountered and pension savings go to those you want them to go to.”

Watch the latest digital panel event from Protection Reporter covering life policies in trust, sponsored by Guardian Financial Services, here

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