Private client work during lockdown/Covid-19
20 May 2020
When the country went into lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic in mid-March many businesses came to a complete standstill. This was the right thing to do to keep everyone safe and avoid any unnecessary loss of life. However, some professions and areas of business needed to remain open to ensure citizens were kept safe and looked after and people working in these areas are classed as key workers.
Some solicitors have been categorised as key workers. Those solicitors with expertise in Will Writing, Powers of Attorney, Court of Protection and Probate and Estate Administration have continued to work on behalf of their clients. It is therefore business as usual for our Private Client team at Wilsons who will continue to work for all our clients including those who are most vulnerable during this difficult time.
Many people who had not thought of it before, were suddenly being confronted with the concept of mortality. Requests to either update wills or write ones for the first time increased. Where an existing client wishes to update or write a new will we are able to obtain instructions over the phone, in writing or by email which are then verified before sending out the draft for approval.
With new clients the process of verifying the client's identity can be difficult as obtaining certified copies of ID can be challenging. However, thanks to programmes such as Zoom and Skype (other programmes are available) it is possible to video link with people to carry out the ID check.
The slightly trickier issue arose when it came to signing and witnessing the will. In other areas of law the courts have shown some level of flexibility such as HM Revenue and Customs now accepting electronic signatures as does the Land Registry.
However, it was made very clear that a will still had to be signed and witnessed and that the witness could not do this via Skype, Zoom or any other kind video conferencing. We had to get creative with our will signing procedure ensuring that we complied with the Section 9(a) of the Wills Act 1837 while at the same time respecting the government guidelines on social distancing.
An example of how to sign a will is for a solicitor to attend at the client's property and using a garden wall as the surface on which the will is signed by the testator in clear view of the solicitor and neighbour. In this environment it can be ensured that the testator and witnesses are all 2m apart from each other.
Where there are issues with the testator being more vulnerable and unable to leave the house it could instead be arranged for the testator to stay inside their house and sign the will by a window. This way the testator is protected and the witness can come close using the protection of the window to witness the signing of the will. The will can then be placed outside the front door and both witnesses can return to the window to sign it in clear view of the testator.
Probate work/estate administration
When someone dies there are various steps that need to be taken to deal with the deceased's estate. Where a person owned assets above a certain value it may be necessary to obtain a Grant of Probate in cases where the deceased left a will or Letters of Administration in cases where the deceased died intestate (without a will).
The first step is registering the death which needs to be done within 5 days of death; unless a medical certificate is being issued; in which case the death needs to be registered within 14 days. Before restrictions were implemented, it was necessary to book an appointment with your local registrar to register a death. Since late March it has been possible to register deaths by telephone, a service we have now successfully used on a number of occasions. As the process is new to solicitors and registrars alike we are all learning as we go along but it was positive to note how straight forward the process is.
The grant application and estate administration processes slowed down initially when valuations from asset holders were not forthcoming or slow in being produced. However, many asset holders such as banks, investment companies and insurance providers amongst others have now settled into providing their service with their staff working remotely. As a result probate applications are still being prepared and submitted by our firm.
Property valuations were difficult to arrange as agents attending at properties would have been in breach of government guidelines. While agents are unable to attend in person it is possible to use estimates to avoid delays in submitting the inheritance tax return to HM Revenue and Customs as long as it is made clear that the figures provided are estimates.
Another positive change is that HM Revenue and Customs and HM Courts and Tribunal Services now will accept electronic signatures where previously wet signatures were required.
It was reported in May that probate applications had halved since the lockdown began. At Wilsons we are working hard to ensure that applications are still made in a timely fashion whenever possible.
To add to the challenges, a new application process was introduced. Until recently, in order to extract a Grant of Representation, a Statement of Truth had to be prepared and signed by the personal representatives. The Statement of Truth has now been replaced by either form PAP1 where there is a will or form PA1A (deceased left a will) or form PA1P (deceased died without a will). While these forms are lengthy, 20 or 23 pages, the purpose is to streamline the application process further which will hopefully result in quicker turn-around times in the future. At Wilsons we have ensured that we familiarise ourselves with the new application format and have already submitted a number of applications using the new process.
It does need to be noted that social distancing requirements will affect all areas of work including the revenue and the courts and this will no doubt lead to delays. The time from applying for a Grant of Representation and it being issued may well take 2-3 months if not longer. It is positive to see how all organisations involved in the estate administration process are quickly adapting to remote working and dealing with the challenges this way of working produces.
As personal representative it is important that assets are protected, which includes making sure that any unoccupied insurance cover does not require weekly inspections if these cannot be carried out. Delays in sales of shares should be considered until the markets pick up and other means of disposing of assets, such as on line auctions should be considered.
We are also sympathetic to the needs of our beneficiaries and the possible financial constraints that some are facing, especially those in the charity sector. Wherever possible we will release interim distribution payments from estates where the Grant has issued if it is safe to do so.
Whilst the new normal is challenging, we are all becoming better at adapting to the new regime. Some of the changes that this pandemic has forced upon us are ultimately speeding up the estate administration process and reducing the need for personal interviews. Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy but we, at Wilsons together with other organisations and government departments are working with the aim to make the process for you as easy as possible.