I cannot get worked up about the fact that significantly higher probate fees are to be levied on bigger estates. Any legatee coming into £2m-plus, for example, is highly likely to be benefiting from a vast, unearned capital gain on residential property. They are having their cake and eating it, while the ‘taxman’ does nothing more than nibble at the cherry on top.
The same goes for estates in the £500,000-plus bracket, most of which will be based in the well-heeled south of England.
Meanwhile, the threshold below which nothing will be payable has increased from £5,000 to £50,000. So for the BBC to report that the government is to ‘substantially increase the cost to bereaved families of settling the estates of deceased relatives’ is misleading at best.
Is this progressive taxation, then?
Not really, no. Critics including the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners are right to point out that this is a ‘stealth tax’ and, of course, it bears no relation to the actual cost of probate. Had the government wanted to hike the sum levied on substantial estates, there is a very obvious way of doing so. As Gordon Brown could tell you, however, that is politically toxic. Note how the same newspapers fulminating about probate fees go quiet when it is pointed out that inheritance tax is not levied on the ‘middle-classes’ (as they maintain) but rather the largest 4% of estates only.
More dispiriting still is the clumsy hypothecation of higher probate fees to pay for a courts upgrade. That amounts to an admission of defeat from the Ministry of Justice, after last month’s budget confirmed that austerity is here to stay at Petty France.
Now, it seems, ministers must come up with their own ingenious schemes for holding up the scaffolding that underpins justice and the rule of law. It feels almost quaint to observe that this superstructure is one constituent of a mature democracy which should be paid for through general taxation.
Employment tribunal fees are set to be disinterred too. Maybe that will fill the hole left by the government’s about-turn on capping probate fees at £20,000. There is a pattern developing here.