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A simple guide to the probate process

When a relative or friend dies, there’s an awful lot of paperwork that needs sorting out. If a will has been left, this should name an ‘executor’ – the person responsible for winding up the estate. If there is no will, the court will appoint an ‘administrator’ to deal with the estate.

If you’re the person responsible, you’ll need to overcome the hurdle of obtaining ‘grant of representation’ before you can start distributing their property, money and assets. This whole process is known as ‘probate’.

As probate is a legal requirement, it’s quite a complicated system to get to grips with. You can either apply for probate yourself, or you can pay a solicitor to do the work for you. Here’s a simple breakdown of the different stages that are required when obtaining probate in England and Wales – you can read the probate process in a bit more detail further down the page.

Probate process in a bit more detail

Investigating the value of the estate

First things first, you’ll need to gather details of all the deceased person’s assets (e.g. property, savings accounts, debts) and work out how much the estate is worth to determine whether you need to apply for a grant of representation (grant). You’ll probably have to trawl through financial records such as bank statements and tax returns in order to find out this information.

Sometimes a grant is not needed if the estate is:

  • Low value. Generally speaking, if what’s been left behind is less than £5,000 and doesn’t include property, land or shares, a grant may not be needed. It’s worth noting that different organisations will have different limits to decide whether a grant is required.
  • Is held under joint names. If any parts of the estate are held in joint names (e.g. property or a bank account) this will automatically pass to the surviving spouse/civil partner.

When you contact the deceased’s banks or financial institutions, they will either release the funds or tell you to get a grant of representation first. For example, with Engage Mutual’s over 50s life insurance, policyholders can nominate beneficiaries which means the policy pays out the first £5,000 of the lump sum to loved ones without the need for probate. However, some banks or financial institutions may insist that you get a grant before giving you access to even the smallest amounts of money.

A grant is almost certainly needed when the person who dies leaves one or more of the following:

  • Assets worth more than £5,000 in total (although this figure can vary).
  • Property or land held in the name of the deceased, or held as ‘tenants in common’ with someone else.
  • Stocks or shares.
  • Certain insurance policies.

Completing the relevant forms

Applying for a grant of representation involves filling out a few different forms and swearing on an oath. Here’s an overview of the main steps to the application process:

1. Complete a probate application form – you’ll need to complete the PA1 application form in England and Wales.

2. Complete the relevant Inheritance Tax form – depending on the value of the estate, there may be inheritance tax to pay. You’ll need to complete a IHT form even if you think no tax is owed. The estate will definitely owe Inheritance Tax if it’s over the threshold of £325,000 (in 2014-2015).

3. Send your application – you’ll need to send the probate and inheritance tax forms to your local probate office along with the will (if there is one), the application fee and the death certificate.

4. Swear an oath – you’ll need to make a promise that the information you’ve given is true to the best of your knowledge. The probate office will send you an oath and details on how to arrange your appointment.

For more specific details on the process and types of forms to fill out, visit www.gov.uk/wills-probate-inheritance/overview.

Next steps…

If the estate does owe inheritance tax, you’ll need to pay some or all of the inheritance tax in order to receive the grant of representation. This must be paid within 6 months after the death.

It’s then a case of waiting for the grant of representation to come through in the post. Once this has arrived, you’ll have to send a copy to the relevant organisations in order to get hold of the person’s assets. Next you’ll need to clear any debts – this might include outstanding bills or tax. Once all of this has been sorted, you can then distribute the estate to whoever is entitled to it according to the will (or the law if there is no will).

It’s important to remember that being an executor of someone’s estate comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s essential that you fully understand your duties when looking after the affairs, as you will be financially liable if any mistakes are made.


Note: Whilst we take care to ensure Talking Finance content is accurate at the time of publication, individual circumstances can differ so please don’t rely on it when making financial decisions.