Probate and estate administration during Coronavirus

27 April 2020 / Insight posted in Articles, Coronavirus, Legal

The Coronavirus pandemic has presented families and friends with many challenges as we all try to adjust to a new way of living. As well as Coronavirus-related deaths, lives continue to be lost through natural causes and accidents, and loved ones are left mourning a friend or relative without being able to find comfort in each other’s company.

While the government has relaxed many rules and regulations, the restrictions in place do not alleviate the burden placed on executors to administer a deceased’s estate on a timely and proper basis.

Registering the death

The doctor or coroner will liaise directly with the registrar confirming the cause of death. Following this, a code will be issued to enable an appointment to be arranged with the next of kin or official representative.

Registrars have had to relax the requirement for a death to be registered in person, and this can be now be done by telephone. The list of people who can register a death now includes funeral directors acting on behalf of the family or representative of the deceased. The deceased’s personal details – such as full names, marital status, occupation and previous address – will be required when registering the death, as before.

The registrar will then issue an electronic certificate for burial or cremation, which is sent to the funeral director. It will also be possible to apply online to obtain death certificates at this point but note that some registrars are limiting the number of certificates issued and if additional copies are required, a separate application is required.

‘Tell Us Once’ service and other notifications  

The registrar will issue a unique reference number to enable notification under this useful service. It is provided by the government to reduce the number of separate death notifications required to inform government departments of the death regarding state pension and any other benefit payments, blue badge, passport, driving licence, council tax etc. Note that the service must be used within 84 days of death or separate notifications will be required.

Arranging the funeral

Unfortunately, most institutions are no longer conducting funerals or memorial services, however it may be possible to arrange for a short service at the graveside or crematorium. While most funeral homes remain open, the social restrictions mean that all arrangements must take place by email and telephone.

The funeral service itself will be limited to close family members and there are restrictions as to the number of people entitled to attend, and social distancing rules are strictly applied. Some families are using technology to allow others to join remotely.

Although memorial services or wakes will have to take place after the restrictions are relaxed, as these costs and the funeral expenses are tax-deductible for inheritance tax purposes, it is important to keep all receipts and invoices.

Applying for probate  

The executors nominated by a Will are legally obliged to deal with the administration of the estate, unless they choose to formally step aside. The role of executor is an onerous one, and the executor is personally liable for their actions or inaction. For those without any previous experience of these matters, or where there are some complexities or contentious issues, it is advisable to seek professional advice and support to ensure there is a complete understanding of the tasks involved, and the timeframe in which they need to be completed.

The executors will need to identify the value of the assets and liabilities of the deceased, gather those assets in, discharge any debts and distribute any specific assets and the remainder of the estate in accordance with the Will. Where there is no Will, or where the Will is invalid, statutory rules govern who will inherit. Our private client legal team can confirm the validity or otherwise of a Will, as well as ascertain who would inherit under the intestacy rules. We can also identify the beneficiaries and calculate their entitlements from the estate.

Valuing assets can be tricky under present restrictions, as most institutions require sight of the original certified copy of the death certificate before releasing the information. We have access to online platforms that make the process of obtaining the valuations straightforward. The valuation of immovable property will also prove difficult while social distancing measures are in place, but an estimated value can be provided on the inheritance tax return with a note to confirm that a formal valuation will be submitted once the valuer can physically access to the property.

The deceased’s personal tax affairs should be reviewed, and completed to date of death to calculate any outstanding liability. As the information may not be readily available, or there may simply not be enough time to deal with this aspect, estimates may have to be included and a corrective account submitted when circumstances allow.

A key stage in the estate administration process is submitting and paying any inheritance tax due on the estate within six months of date of death. Depending on the nature of the assets in the estate, it may be possible to pay the tax by instalments. Although the requirements as to who must sign the tax returns have been relaxed, the deadline for payment of the tax has not. Interest will be chargeable on any unpaid tax after the six-month period has elapsed. It is important to commence the administration process as soon as possible.

Having ascertained the value of the estate and submitted the inheritance tax return, the executors then apply for grant of representation (either the probate or letters of administration). The grant is the authority for the executors to distribute the deceased’s assets among the beneficiaries. The application for the grant can be made online once the inheritance tax forms have been completed and submitted by the solicitor administering the estate.

How Moore Kingston Smith can help 

Dealing with the estate of a family member or friend is always difficult and it is even more so with current restrictions in place. Our experienced team of legal and tax advisers can help ease the burden. The team has an empathetic and considered approach and can deal with all or just part of the administration, as required. For example:

  • assist with the registration of death with the various asset holders
  • file the required notices for creditors in the estate
  • advise on the terms of the will or the distribution of the estate if there is no will
  • compile the inheritance tax account and arrange for the appropriate tax to be settled
  • obtain the grant of representation, whether that is a grant of probate or letters of administration
  • collect assets and settle liabilities; the estate funds will be held in our legal client account which is audited, hence there is no need to open a separate estate bank account
  • pay any liabilities
  • distribute the estate and carry out the required identity checks and bankruptcy checks for each beneficiary.

Unlike many other firms, we do not charge a ‘responsibility fee’ or ‘value element’ where the fee may be linked to the value of the estate. We only charge for the work we carry out, at stated hourly rates, with the team identified at the outset. The basis of our fees is agreed with the executors at the outset and are dependent on the scope of our involvement and an estimate of the time we will actually incur. We are able to provide a likely estimate of our costs and keep you updated as the matter progresses.

Our fees are outlined here.