When, in 2002, the then-US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, spoke about ‘unknown unknowns’, everyone dismissed it as just another piece of political double-speak. Some baffling spin designed to distract public attention from the matter in hand. But, over time, it’s a phrase that’s stuck in the public consciousness. It’s basically saying that we don’t know what we don’t know, which it can be wise to admit in any situation where we may be lacking the information we need to make the best decision.
I was reminded of this recently when talking with a client about their application for a grant of probate. A grant of probate, or grant of representation, allows a person to distribute the assets of someone who has died according to the wishes set out in their will. Individuals can enlist the help of a solicitor with the process of gathering all the correct information and applying for it, or they can choose to do it themselves. It was when our client was faced with this decision that they admitted that, in their own words, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, and took the decision to enlist some legal help.
The DIY Option
It’s not difficult to see the appeal of making the application yourself. The feeling is that with a little diligence on their own part people can save some money on legal fees. The advice we give is while it is possible for you to do some of the work yourself, and that this will reduce costs, it’s probably better in the long run to speak to a solicitor at the beginning of the process. We can provide guidance on the parts of the process that clients can do themselves – should they want to – and which parts would be best left to a legal professional. That way, they will still cut down on the fees but without placing an unrealistic burden on themselves for the bits which could really do with an expert.
One of these areas is a thorough knowledge of Inheritance Tax (IHT) where a solicitor can potentially (and legitimately) save them from paying significant amounts of tax unnecessarily. IHT can be a minefield for the uninitiated and, in fact, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond has written to the Office of Tax Simplification to call for a review into the complexity of the current system. Even if IHT is simplified, it’s likely to remain a very complex area for the layperson. They might get the short-term satisfaction of saving on solicitors’ fees, but it can be a completely false economy if that leaves them open to a larger tax bill as a result.
As well as the potential pitfalls of doing it yourself, there are other factors to bear in mind when thinking about applying for a grant of probate. Things like getting a quote for the legal costs upfront, enlisting the correct expertise to suit your circumstances, and ensuring the right standard of personal service from your solicitors should all be considered. Here are some examples of recent cases we have been involved in that prove why getting these things right is so important:
Clarity on costs
We have had feedback from a number of clients that other law firms and probate companies are still charging on either a time spent basis or a percentage based on the value of the estate. A contact of ours who is acting as an executor on an estate wasn’t happy with this open-ended approach, so she spoke to us at Progeny Private Law. Once we had gathered the relevant information about what was in the estate we were able to give an estimate and then agree a fixed fee to do all the work necessary.
Benefit of expertise
The father of a client was recently quoted a cost of as much as £20,000 and told that the process would take anything between six and nine months. As the client had already gathered the vast majority of the information together, when we met them we were able to say that we could prepare and have the probate and IHT papers ready in weeks rather than months. We were also able to confirm that the final cost would come to no more than £5,000, including advice on how the complex residential nil-rate band tax allowances could be used to help them. The expertise and advice we gave them could potentially save the family up to £140,000 in tax.
Quality of service
Another example included a will made many years ago appointing a bank as executors. When it became time for the bank to carry out this duty, the solicitors’ firm they had employed to do the work operated on a standard fee scale linked to the value of the estate rather than the complexity of the job. They didn’t offer face-to-face client meetings and instead conducted everything by phone, email or letter. Despite it being a very straightforward case where no IHT was payable, it took nearly six months to get the grant of probate.
Start by Speaking to a Solicitor
If you find yourself needing to apply for a grant of probate, talking to a solicitor early on is a sensible move. In summary:
- If you want to reduce costs, we can advise in the early stages on which areas of the process you can work on yourself.
- We can provide a good estimate of overall costs or a fixed fee depending on how much information about the estate is available.
- We will ensure you’re claiming all the tax reliefs available to you and guide you on how the estate can be structured to your benefit in future.
- Finally, be sure to regularly review your will as it is often not necessary to appoint professional executors. Many banks and will-writing companies insist on appointing themselves, which is why the will-writing service is either free or heavily discounted.
If you would like the right combination of guidance and support when applying for grant of probate, please get in touch. We’d be happy to help.
The content of this article is for information only and is not intended to be construed as legal advice and should not be treated as a substitute for specific advice. Progeny Private Law Ltd accepts no responsibility for the content of any third-party website to which this article refers.