Will going digital simplify probate applications?

18th January 2018

Dealing with someone’s estate can be complicated and often involves lots of paperwork. Will the Probate Registry’s online service save applicants time and money?  Read our article below and decide for yourself.

What has changed?

The Probate Service is accepting online applications from personal applicants. The service is due to be extended to solicitors in Spring 2018.

In order to use this service, the applicant must fulfil the criteria below:

  • Only one executor is applying
  • The original signed will is available to be sent to the Probate Registry
  • The deceased considered England & Wales as their permanent home or intended to return to England & Wales to live permanently

Whilst the first two criteria are self-explanatory, the third could potentially be tricky, especially where it says the deceased “intended to return to live permanently”. It is as yet unclear what evidence is required to satisfy this criterion so we await further details from the Probate Service. For most estates, it should be obvious if the deceased considered England and Wales as their permanent home. If, you are in any doubt, you should contact us for further advice as this may also have implications on the amount of tax payable.

Clearly the online application form aims to simplify the process for personal applicants and this is welcome. Features of the online service include completing an online statement of truth (removing the need to swear an oath in person), paying fees online rather than by cheque and the facility to save and return to your application (like a word document so you can make changes).

Whilst this will be useful for some applicants, it will not be suitable for everyone. There are some examples below (not an exhaustive list) of situations where the service will not be available:

  • Where the deceased was not domiciled in England & Wales
  • Where there is more than one executor applying
  • Estates where the deceased died without making a will (intestacy)

It is envisaged that the service will be widened to accept other types of applications in the future.

What is the same

If you use the online service, you will still be required to provide the usual supporting documents including the original will (plus 2 photocopies), death certificate, inheritance tax forms and any other supporting documents relevant to the case (eg a power of attorney if the executor has appointed one).

Unless the above criteria is fulfilled, you will need to follow the usual procedure to apply for a Grant of Probate.  This involves various papers but the most important documents to prepare are the Inheritance Tax account for HMRC and the oath which is then sworn by the personal representatives.

One of the main concerns about instructing a solicitor is the cost. Most of the time incurred by solicitors when preparing the application for the Grant is collating the information and ascertain the value of someone’s estate. The forms to be submitted to HMRC are lengthy and are not always straight forward. We offer a comprehensive and cost effective service which sets out our costs at the outset. If additional information comes to light, or the matter becomes more complicated, for example, if there is a beneficiary dispute, then this can increase the costs. We aim to provide our clients with a high level service no matter the value of the estate.

What to expect in the future

HMRC is already going “digital” and professionals are trying to adapt accordingly. Don’t despair! You can still call and write to them and they will, eventually, reply to you.  For the foreseeable future snail mail should be around as going paperless has its limits.

Our view is that whilst this may simplify matters for many applicants, there is still a lot of scope for solicitor involvement. This is particularly true where there is a foreign element, or where personal representatives are based abroad and want someone within the jurisdiction to deal with matters for them.

The Law Society has welcomed these changes with caution. It warns of potential fraud and vulnerable people being taken advantage of by others who can apply online on their behalf. There is merit in this concern, particularly given that hacking and cyber security is more important than ever with an increasing amount of our details being online.  With this in mind, the Probate Registry must be vigilant and cautious. A Grant of Probate is needed to sell most assets, so particular care should be taken where a property forms part of the deceased’s estate.

If you, or anyone you know needs advice or assistance with applying for a Grant of Probate, including re-sealing a Grant, then please contact Alix Langrognat or a member of the Succession & Tax team in London.

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