Bills stoke grief for families in council tax trap after bereavement

Many bereaved families are suffering at the hands of heartless local authorities unwilling to extend council tax exemptions on empty properties that could not be sold during lockdown. 

The Mail on Sunday has been flooded with heartbreaking stories of grieving relatives hit with unexpected council tax bills following our report on the issue last week. 

Most were unaware they had six months after gaining legal control of a loved one’s empty home – through the process known as probate – to sell it before council tax would start to be charged again. 

Bills shock: Linda Constant and her mother Violet who died last year

Bills shock: Linda Constant and her mother Violet who died last year

Bills shock: Linda Constant and her mother Violet who died last year

Harry Fone, of the campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance, says it is ‘deeply unfair’ that bereaved families have been put ‘through the wringer’. 

He adds: ‘The pandemic has had a devastating impact on many people, both emotionally and financially. Now, more than ever, taxpayers should be able to retain as much of their income as possible. 

‘Local authorities need to exercise restraint and understanding rather than increasing the burden on already hard-pressed ratepayers.’ 

Linda Constant is among those to have been sent a council tax bill out of the blue. 

Her mother passed away in June last year and Linda was still getting to grips with her loss in March when a council tax demand arrived from Bromley Council in South-East London for £231 a month. Her mother, Violet, had been exempt from council tax due to her age and frail physical condition. 

Violet died aged 98 after a long struggle with dementia. But Linda was unaware that she would be liable for council tax on her mother’s house once six months had elapsed since she was granted probate. 

The four-bedroom detached property was put on the market in September 2019. But Linda, 74, says it was impossible to sell as it was in need of major renovations. 

Then the property market came to a shuddering halt in March as soon as lockdown was imposed. Linda argued with Bromley Council that she had been desperately trying to sell the property, but says it was ‘less than sympathetic’. 

The council offered to defer the payments for three months, but Linda didn’t think it was worth it. 

‘I am not getting any benefit from the council and am also having to pay council tax on my own home,’ she says. ‘It would be much fairer if councils agreed to halve the bill in cases where homes are proving difficult to sell. I am a pensioner myself and it has not been easy making the payments.’ 

Violet’s home has now been sold, with completion scheduled for next month. Bromley Council said it was ‘following’ Government guidance and that residents could ‘apply to a hardship fund’ – resulting in a possible bill reduction. 

The Mail on Sunday has been flooded with heartbreaking stories of grieving relatives hit with unexpected council tax bills following our report on the issue last week (stock image)

The Mail on Sunday has been flooded with heartbreaking stories of grieving relatives hit with unexpected council tax bills following our report on the issue last week (stock image)

The Mail on Sunday has been flooded with heartbreaking stories of grieving relatives hit with unexpected council tax bills following our report on the issue last week (stock image)

Denny Broadwell, 69, thought that she had found an effective solution to fund her mother’s care fees when she moved into a residential home nearly four years ago. 

But she had no idea that this would later make her liable for council tax on her mother’s house. 

Her mother, Stella Peters, moved into a care home in November 2016 and her bungalow in Christchurch, Dorset, was let to tenants to help pay the fees. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council also had a ‘charge’ against the property to subsidise the care fees. 

Stella died aged 92 in October last year and the tenants moved out the following month so it could be sold. But bad news followed as the local authority said council tax would be levied until the house was sold. 

Denny says: ‘We were told by the council that if Mum had died while living in the property we would have had a six-month grace period before council tax was charged again. But because she was in a care home and it had been rented out we would have to pay council tax straight away.

‘Surely, if a parent passes away and leaves a property to be sold, council tax should either be stopped or reduced until the property is disposed of?’ 

Stella’s home was finally sold in May, but Denny, who also lives in Christchurch, says a reprieve would have been helpful especially given the £84,100 charge on the home in lieu of care fees. 

Last week,the council said it understood the ‘difficulties’ some people had experienced in selling unoccupied properties, but it was following government guidelines. 

Anguish: We revealed the councils’ harsh tactics

Anguish: We revealed the councils’ harsh tactics

Anguish: We revealed the councils’ harsh tactics

Although Rosemary Lovell, 74, lives in Eastbourne, East Sussex, she is being held responsible for a £1,800-a-year council tax bill on a two-bedroom bungalow more than 300 miles away in Cornwall. 

This is because she is a named beneficiary with her two sisters in the will of her uncle, Terence Smithers, who died aged 86 in October last year. 

Rosemary was aware that there is usually a six-month council tax exemption after probate is granted. But she says the council gave only a one-month exemption, adding: ‘We had a buyer lined up in March, but then the pandemic hit and he decided to stop the purchase. The bungalow is not sold, through no fault of mine, but I am being penalised because of the pandemic.’ 

To make matters worse, the bill is based on the full rate of council tax, rather than the reduced single-person rate her uncle paid. 

Rosemary adds: ‘It is not right that I should have to pay full council tax on an empty bungalow – and pay more than my uncle was paying. 

‘The council says we can still use the bungalow. But we are all in our seventies and live hundreds of miles away. 

‘Its attitude throughout has been unhelpful and distressing at a time when help is deeply appreciated.’ 

Cornwall Council said it could not comment on individual cases but claims its procedures are clear and applied consistently.  

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