Probate is not something you want to do. It is probably something you haven’t done before. But it is also not something you want to do badly as mistakes are expensive. So, the objective of this guide is to give you the best and quickest way through the process.
The process of sorting out a person’s possessions after their death is called probate (or confirmation in Scotland) and can be done without a lawyer to save money.
What is Probate? When a person dies what they leave in terms of money, property and possessions is known as their estate and you need to prove authority to administer and distribute the estate. If there are only jointly owned assets which pass to a spouse or partner then probate will not normally be necessary (HM Revenue & Customs).
For probate the first question is whether there is a will (59% of people in the UK do not have a will). If there is a will the executor/s have to apply for a grant of probate. If there is no will the next of kin have to apply for a grant of letters of administration. Only after the grant can any distribution be made.
These applications are referred to as probate, and the executor’s job is made up of verifying the assets, paying bills, and distributing what’s left. It normally takes between four and eight weeks to get a grant of probate after you submit the application, and the time to complete then depends on what needs to be sold and distributed.
Application fees are zero for estates worth less than £5,000. Above that, fees are £155 if you apply through a solicitor or £215 if you do it yourself.
What are the main steps? It is useful to divide probate into nine steps.
You do this at the register office for where the death occurred within five days. You can find and contact the relevant office on Gov.uk. You need a copy of the death certificate for each asset: each property, bank account, credit card etc.
As noted above, most people don’t have wills and the application is not the same. A will says who the executor is. If the executor declines, any beneficiary can apply to the probate registry to be an administrator. If there is no will, the deceased is ‘intestate’ and intestacy rules determine how the estate is distributed.
Even if it can be a bit of a moving target, you need to value the estate. Bank accounts, insurance policies, loans, and liquid assets will be straightforward, but property including jewelry, collectables and now digital assets will need a proper valuation, and you need to be conscious of the timing of any gifts made in the last seven years. The deceased can make the executor’s job a lot easier by listing assets with any supporting valuations. Incidentally, it is worth opening a bank account at this stage to deal with everything as you are going to block or close the deceased’s accounts and won’t be able to use these.
An application for the grant of probate or grant of letters of administration is necessary to show you have the right to access and distribute the assets. The first step is to confirm whether the estate is liable for inheritance tax (threshold £325,000). Any tax must be paid before the grant, either from the deceased’s bank or by the executor or administrator personally, secured against the estate. Inheritance Tax is due six months after the end of the month in which the death occurs. There is an option to pay in 10 instalments, with the first due by the six-month date.
You need to complete the probate application either on paper or online if you have the death certificate, estate valuation, and paid any Inheritance Tax, originals of which you will need to send to HMCTS Probate.
You must inform relevant government bodies, utility companies, banks and any other organizations with which the deceased had a relationship of their death, getting back any money owed, closing accounts and stopping any further charges.
This is where you can lose a lot of time if the deceased hasn’t left a list of contacts and necessary documents. Otherwise, you will need to turn detective and go through any papers, bills, internet bookmarks, mobile applications and files. There are services to find lost accounts, investments and pensions, but these are slow and there is an inevitable risk that they won’t find everything, which is another reason to make a will and keep records of everything or assume it can be lost.
If there is the money to do it, debts will be paid off, including mortgages, loans, and credit cards. Assets passed to a surviving partner can be subject to claims from unpaid creditors of the deceased.
Start the claims process for any life insurance. A standard policy can be liable for tax, but a life insurance in trust will not be and will be paid to the beneficiaries (without going through the probate) and not the estate.
The last major step is distributing the remaining estate after any taxes and debts have been paid. If there is a will it will state who should get what. If there is no will, the assets are distributed under the rules of intestacy.
Before distributing anything, it is worth preparing a set of final accounts and having the beneficiaries approve them to avoid potential disputes after distribution. These accounts and the other relevant documents should be kept for the 12 years limitation period for claims against the estate.
Summary and Conclusion
It is possible to do everything without a lawyer, but the key is being organized and conscious of the steps that need to be completed, for example including the need for multiple copies of the death certificate.
If the estate is complex, for example if there are doubts about the validity of the will, if dependents left out of a will are likely to challenge it, if the estate is bankrupt, or if the deceased wasn’t UK tax domiciled, then you may decide to appoint a probate specialist, but this will obviously incur a fee. You can find a probate lawyer through the Law Society website.
One obvious conclusion is how much simpler the whole probate is if the deceased has their documents in order and available to the executor or administrator. Speed is one thing, but there is also a clear risk of losing bank accounts or pensions. Around 20 million people in the UK have unclaimed or lost money in dormant savings accounts, pensions, investments, and forgotten bank accounts.
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