However you want to characterise it, if we are indeed in the post-truth age or the era of "alternative facts" it is likely that it would be, by definition, so confusing a state of affairs that we would be unable to tell. But the sheer brazenness of the government‘s budget announcing a May 1st hike in Grant of Probate "court fee" does feel indicative of a huge disconnect between policy and reality, and as such is couched in suitably misleading language. But make no mistake it is a tax on death that strikes right to the heart of families, their sense of security, their sense of self-worth and their self-reliance. We should not be surprised if ultimately it undermines families, their connection to their land and their legacies.
Currently the probate process is, basically, fair. Probate solicitors have to pay a flat rate of £155 when making probate applications, while personal representatives who manage the process themselves pay a slightly higher £205. But with the new banding fees to be calculated before inheritance tax settlement, estates will soon face bills of thousands of pounds while those worth in excess of £2 million will be saddled with probate fee bills of £20,000.
Inheritance tax is one of those contentious areas of taxation which is almost impossible to pitch correctly to the electorate. With so many people having different views on the subject – and indeed single individuals capable of possessing seemingly conflicting views – it is very much a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" kind of affair.
Whatever the case, the process of inheritance tax and probate in general presents considerable challenges to the personal representatives of estates, regardless of whether they are executors or administrators.
Against this background, it seems a little disingenuous that the government should have recently proposed to raise probate fees in the way that they have. Gone will be the flat-rate system and instead will appear a tiered system to calculate fees based on the value of an estate – call it an additional inheritance tax by stealth if you like: a death tax per se.
Over recent years an increasing number of families have been stung by inheritance tax liabilities for which they were unprepared.
The tax liability surprise affects mainly those estates which stand to benefit from transferred pensions schemes when the testator has made the transfer knowing that he or she has reduced life expectancy or has died within two years of making the transfer.
For those falling foul of the HM Revenue and Customs rules there is only limited clarity regarding options when faced with such unexpected liability – indeed, it is a grey area of the law unfamiliar even to many of the UK's probate solicitors.
If you have children or grandchildren and see them easily navigating their way across multiple digital devices – whether laptops, smartphones, tablets, PCs, smart televisions or game consoles – it's unlikely to come as a surprise to you to learn that just about every single facet of human life is in the process of being disrupted by technology. And, yes, this includes all areas surrounding those twin certainties: death and taxes.
In fact, so inevitable is this disruption that we should no longer even be asking the question of whether it is going to make things better or worse. Instead, we should be looking to ask, since continued disruption is inevitable, how are we going to ensure that other inevitable, such as probate administration, are made better?
If you thought that the impending changes to inheritance tax law represented uncomplicated good news, you'd better think again.
This is because far from making the process of inheritance tax fairer and more straightforward as the government has promised, it is likely that the changes will, to some extent, only add to the confusion and, potentially, the liability of those who are not in receipt of good inheritance tax advice.
For example, as of April next year a new "family home allowance" will increase the tax-free liability of many families by adding £175,000 to the existing £325,000 tax-free threshold of each individual. However, the allowance will apply only to "direct descendants" and will be subject to a yearly phase-in, with the final stage to be implemented in 2020-21.
In fact, some media outlets have gone so far as to claim that the legal profession is "rubbing its hands in anticipation of a surge in fees". It is easy to see why some might gain this impression; a 2016 Legal Services Board survey found that only 16% of legal firms displayed their prices online. Of course, this is hardly a cardinal sin in itself and there are doubtless many good reasons why some lawyers don't, yet failing to display prices only adds to the consumer's experience of confusion and disempowerment.