A recent article from the Daily Mail has once more put a spotlight on banks handing out huge sums of money to a deceased's family before probate has been completed.
Probate is when the personal representatives of someone who's passed away are given the authority to deal with their assets, such as bank accounts and property.
Getting a grant of probate can be time-consuming and very expensive for small estates, and so banks and other financial providers have allowed lower value accounts to be closed without a valid grant being in place. There isn't a max value that can be withdrawn without a grant, so banks are free to set their own limits - usually around £10,000 to £15,000.
Worringly, experts are now starting to hear worrying stories about families being able to withdraw much larger sums - in some cases hundreds of thousands - without any proof of entitlement and often by just producing a death certificate.
Banks have to tread a thin line between keeping their customers happy and handling bereavement cases in a sensitive manner, but by not asking for the proper evidence, they are leaving executors at risk of not having enough to pay off debts or inheritance tax, leaving them personally exposed to liability.
There's also the consideration that banks and other financial providers may inadvertently pay funds to someone not entitled to anything in the will or the laws of intestacy, making it a breeding ground for costly will dispute litigation.
It's an issue that could get out of hand if we don't tackle it now. Probate experts would like to see a consensus from the banks and other financial providers on an agreed threshold of when funds can be released without the grant of probate.
Doing this is a simple way to begin solving the problem, which will reassure customers and probate experts alike that the banks are taking this issue seriously.
Traditionally banks and building societies were willing to release up to £10,000 without probate, which eases the burden on relatives of those who die with modest and simple estates. But lawyers fear that over the past decade this practice has become too relaxed.