Guide to probate

What is probate?

When someone dies and leaves property, money and possessions – known as their estate – you need to sort out who gets what. To do this, you need what is known as a ‘grant of representation’. This proves your authority to administer the estate. What form this takes will depend on whether a will has been left.

  • If a will has been left – the executor(s) will need to apply for a grant of probate.
  • If a will hasn’t been left – the next of kin will need to apply for a grant of letters of administration.

The process of applying for the grant and the document you use to manage the estate is often generically referred to as ‘probate’ – for simplicity, this is the term we will use in the guide.

Probate is the same for everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but if you live in Scotland it’s called ‘confirmation’. For full information, see the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website.

Put simply, and in order, the executor’s job and the process of dealing with probate involves:

  • Gathering any assets, eg, money left in bank accounts
  • Paying any bills
  • Distributing what’s left according to the will

Does everyone need to use probate?

No. Many estates don’t need to go through this process. If there’s only jointly-owned property and money which passes to a spouse or civil partner when someone dies, probate will not normally be needed.

If you’re not sure whether probate is necessary, seek advice from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

How long does probate take?

Provided there are no complications, it usually takes between four and eight weeks to get a grant of probate after you’ve submitted the application.

Once you’ve got it, the amount of time it takes to complete depends on the estate’s complexity. An estate that includes property to sell, or multiple shares and investments, will inevitably take longer to deal with than one simply consisting of money in a bank account.

How much does probate cost?

Application fees for probate are £215. Estates worth less than £5,000 pay no fee.

Additional copies of the probate form can be ordered for £1.50 each. Multiple copies are essential for the administration process, so it’s a good idea to order a few extra copies. 

Most probate cases follow the same process, so below we’ll start by outlining the main steps you’ll go through if doing probate yourself and not enlisting the help of a specialist.

1. Register the death

You’ll need a copy of the death certificate for each of the deceased’s assets (eg, each bank account, credit card, mortgage etc.), so before you can start probate, you’ll need to register the death.

You’ll usually need to do this within five days in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or eight days in Scotland – though this doesn’t apply if the death’s reported to the coroner.

To do this, go to the register office for the area where the death happened – use Gov.uk to find it. You may need to book an appointment, so it’s worth phoning first.

  • What documents to take

  • Report a death to all Government organisations in one go

  • Report a death to banks, building societies and other financial firms in one go

2. Find out if there’s a will

Before you do anything else, find out if there’s a will. It’s a good idea to start looking for a will in the first week after the death if you can, as it may also have other instructions such as funeral plans. 

It’s important to establish if there’s a will as it says who the executor is. It also names who’ll get any assets left. If the will doesn’t name an executor, or the person who has been named can’t take on the position for any reason, it gets more complicated.

However, there is a process to follow. Any beneficiaries of the estate – usually a close relative such as a spouse, child or parent – can apply to the probate registry to be what is known as an ‘administrator’ of the estate instead.

What if there isn’t a will?

If no valid will has been left, the deceased has died ‘intestate’. In this instance, laws known as intestacy rules govern how their estate should be distributed. Unmarried or divorced partners normally don’t inherit anything under intestacy rules.

3. Sort inheritance tax

Once you know who the executor is – the person authorised to deal with the deceased’s property, money and possessions – they need to apply for a document known as a ‘grant’. (If there is more than one executor, only one needs to apply.) It shows you have the right to access funds, sort finances and share out assets. You should complete an Inheritance Tax Form. 

4. Apply for probate

You’ll need to complete a probate application, this can be done online or by completing a paper form. You can use the online service if the person who died lived in England or Wales most of the time and you’re the executor or administrator and you:

The £215 probate fee is paid as part of the online application. When you have completed the online application, you’ll need to send the original will and any supporting documents as prompted to:

HMCTS Probate
PO Box 12625
Harlow
CM20 9QE

It’s advised to use a signed-for or tracked postal service that will deliver to PO boxes to send these.

Completing a paper probate application form

Fill in the probate application form ‘PA1P’

Send to the same address as above and include:

  • Probate application form PA1P or PA1A if there isn’t a will.
  • Inheritance tax form IHT205
  • The original will, if completing form PA1P
  • The application fee – a cheque for £155 (if using a solicitor) or £215 made payable to HM Courts & Tribunals Service. 
  • Any supporting documents as prompted on the form.

5. Tell all organisations and close accounts

You’ll need to tell every organisation you can think of that the deceased had a relationship with, including Government bodies and financial and utility companies. This makes sure you fulfil your responsibilities, get back money owed and ensure no more charges are taken.

Where to check. Go through all paperwork, internet bookmarks and files to find who they had accounts with. They may have had their own financial factsheet with details that’ll help, so check with next-of-kin.

If you can’t find all the deceased’s bank, building society or savings accounts, website My Lost Account can find out where they held an account, though it can take up to three months to trace. There are also sites that can help you trace lost pensions and investments too. 

Warning. If you’ve a second credit card… on the deceased’s account, it’ll be frozen once you’ve told the bank. If you rely on that card, ask for an account in your name. If you had a joint account, however, you’ll be able to get in contact with the bank and change the account solely into your name.

6. Pay off any debts

Debts will normally need to be paid, but only if the deceased had money left. This includes mortgages, loans, credit and store cards, hire purchase agreements and any other commercial debt – excluding student loans. 

Reach an agreement with creditors to avoid future problems

If all the deceased’s assets pass to their surviving partner there may be no money left in the estate to pay any debts, which could mean they’re written off.

However, creditors can apply for an ‘insolvency administration order’ within five years of the death. This can legally divide any property or assets that automatically pass to a surviving partner, and force a sale.

So first try to come to an agreement with lenders, and try to pay them yourself if absolutely necessary. This is a complex issue, so you may need to discuss it with Citizens Advice.

7. Claim on any life insurance plans

Life insurance usually pays a lump sum to the spouse or family after the insured person dies. So if the deceased had a life insurance or mortgage life insurance plan, call the provider to let it know they’ve passed away, and to start the claims process.

If you’ve any info on the policy, make sure it’s to hand when you call, as the policy number and details will help speed up the process. The provider will then let you know what paperwork’s needed formally to put in the claim.

If you don’t have the policy details, don’t worry. The provider should be able to trace details of the plan through the policyholder’s name, date of birth and address. It’ll also need to see the death certificate to validate the claim, so be prepared to send this.

How long it’ll take to come through depends on the circumstances. As a rough guide, it can be anything from a week to several months if the insurance company feels it needs to investigate further.

If you write a life insurance policy in trust, the proceeds from the policy can be paid directly to the beneficiaries rather than to your legal estate, and therefore won’t be taken into account when inheritance tax (IHT) is calculated.

This is because a trust works in a similar way to an ISA wrapper – it wraps itself around whatever you have in it (eg, a life insurance policy) and protects it from the taxman, meaning they can’t take any tax from money you have in there, or make the money count towards your IHT allowance. It also means it’s likely the money will be available sooner than if you had to go through probate to get it. For help with the claims process, see the Association of British Insurers.

8. Value the estate

  • Money held in financial institutions.
  • Property and land.
  • Businesses.
  • Investments – stocks, shares, ISAs etc.
  • Personal items – eg, jewellery, musical instruments, stamp collections, cars etc.
  • Contents of home.
  • Money payable on death from a pension (excluding ongoing pension payments to a surviving partner).
  • Life insurance payments paid on death, although as above, tax will not be due on policies held in trust.
  • Loans made by the deceased to another person.
  • Certain types of trust from which the deceased benefited (consider getting professional advice on this).
  • An alternatively secured pension fund from which the deceased benefited.

Bank accounts can be added up easily, but property may need a proper valuation to work out what it’s worth. Insurance payouts after death may count as part of the estate, depending on the policy, so factor this in.

Gifts given by the deceased within seven years of their death may need to be taken into account, as well as assets they had an interest in (for example, if they gave property to their kids but lived in it rent-free). See Gov.uk for more on how to value someone’s estate.

9. Share out the remaining assets

Once you’ve gone through all these steps, you’ll be pleased to hear there’s only one big financial task left to tackle – to share out what’s left of the estate.

Here, whatever’s left once all debts and taxes are paid needs to be distributed. If there’s a will, this should be simple as it should state where any remaining assets go.

What if there’s no will?

If there isn’t a will, the assets are distributed under the ‘rules of intestacy’ (though the beneficiaries can agree among themselves to redistribute it as they wish).

Generally these mean that if the deceased was married or in a civil partnership with an estate worth £250,000 or less, everything goes to the husband, wife or civil partner (this is known as ‘succession’ in Scotland and different rules apply – see the Scottish Government website).

There’s a complex set of rules around this depending on the surviving relatives, the amount involved and which part of the UK you’re in.

Unmarried partners won’t automatically get a share

If you weren’t married or in a civil partnership, sadly you won’t automatically get a share of the estate. But if the person who’s died hasn’t left you anything in their will, you’ve the option to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependant’s) Act 1975 in England and Wales.

Other dependant’s may also be able to claim under this too. See Gov.uk to apply. It’s worth seeking legal help if you want to do this.

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