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Banks releasing huge sums without sight of a Grant of Representation: a welcome measure in difficult times or a trap for the unwary?

The impact of COVID 19 has also caused some banks and building societies to review their bereavement processes since the lockdown restrictions began.

The decision by some banks to release as much as £125,000 to the relatives of deceased customers without sight of a Grant of Probate/Grant of Letters of Administration (Grant of Representation) has justifiably raised eyebrows within the legal profession and has resulted in estate practitioners urging caution not only to the banks concerned, but also to lay executors administering such estates.

In 2017, UK Finance (formerly the British Bankers Association) and the Building Societies Association agreed a code of conduct on the treatment of deceased clients' estates, including the release of necessary payments before probate. This code of conduct did not however define or establish a standard limit on the amounts that could be released without sight of a Grant of Representation and as a result, different institutions still operate different practices.

Impact of COVID 19

The impact of COVID 19 has also caused some banks and building societies to review their bereavement processes since the lockdown restrictions began, because the usual approach of a face-to-face discussion with a bereaved relative is not easily done at present. Some banks have also raised the probate limits in certain circumstances.

Welcome measure or open to misuse?

Whilst to some, what they might view as a relaxation of the rules may come as a welcome measure, not only does this open the system to abuse by people falsely claiming to be an executor or administrator, but it also runs the risk that lay executors may think they do not need to apply for a Grant of Representation at all even though there may be other good reasons why this would be recommended.

Problems for executors/administrators of estates

It is possible for certain categories of people to qualify to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the Act). The time limit for bringing a claim under the Act is six months from the date that the Grant of Representation is issued. If a Grant of Representation is not applied for under the mistaken belief that it is not required in a particular case, this could cause problems for an executor or administrator who may have distributed the estate prematurely.

If a Grant of Representation is not applied for, an executor has no way of finding out whether a caveat has been lodged alleging that the will is technically invalid, either due to claims about capacity or undue influence.

Personal liability

The role of a personal representative is complex and onerous and the responsibility of acting in this capacity should be taken seriously. Getting it wrong could be costly for you personally even if you are not a beneficiary of the estate. Personal representatives can be held personally liable for any acts or omissions relating to the administration of an estate which cause loss to the beneficiaries. Obtaining appropriate legal advice from the outset of an estate is always recommended to protect the position of the personal representatives.

Representative bodies such as Solicitors for the Elderly are now lobbying banks and building societies to create a universal policy on limits for releasing bank accounts after death, to prevent abuse, fraud and inheritance tax disputes that might arise if cash is wrongly distributed.

If the content of this update raises any issues for you, or you would like to discuss, please liaise with Richard Bate at richard.bate@weightmans.com or Sally Cook at sally.cook@weightmans.com. The Wills, Trusts and Estates team is able to advise and assist personal representatives in administering an estate or to provide advice regarding particular aspects of estate administration. Contact any member of the team on 0345 073 9900.

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