The courts service has announced its latest roll out of an online system with the statement that ’for most people, a visit to a probate registry or solicitor’s office is no longer needed’. The probate application system, which has been tested by invited users since 2017, is now available to most named executors in England and Wales, HM Courts and Tribunals Service announced yesterday. It allows up to four joint applicants to apply, pay and swear a statement of truth online.

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood, said: ‘I am delighted we are now able to offer this new, simpler way of doing probate to the public at large. It is part of the work we’re doing to make the justice system easier to navigate for everyone.’

The service was set up under HMCTS’ £1bn court reform programme, along with online divorce and money claims. It can be used if the deceased was a permanent resident in England or Wales, if the applicant has the original will and is named as an executor, and for up to four joint applicants. Future developments will include the ability to apply for letters of administration in cases of intestacy. 

Specialist solicitors cautiously welcomed the development while warning of the potential dangers of DIY probate. Ian Bond, chair of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee, said that the online system ‘absolutely has its place and can be a great tool for administering simple estates’. However more complex estates can quickly become difficult to administer and many members of the public are unaware that they can find themselves personally liable for any mistakes they make, he said. 

‘If in doubt over any complex probate issues, it is always best to consult a professional to ensure the estate is administered properly,’ Bond said.

Matthew Lagden, chief executive of the Institute of Legacy Management (ILM), said that work to simplify and streamline the probate process should be welcomed and that firms participating in the pilot had given positive reports.

However he noted when all or part of the residue of an estate is left to charity, it is always safest to involve a probate professional, preferably a solicitor. ‘There are complexities to the law relating to charitable estates that a lay person cannot reasonably be expected to know. Charities also have administrative requirements placed upon them by their auditors that solicitors understand and can deal with very efficiently,’ he said.