Everything You Need To Know About Probate

By Vicki Coleman

When a person dies, it rests on someone to sort out their estate. These financial procedures that follow a death are called ‘probate’ and they can be pretty daunting to have to understand and manage.

Some people would rather not engage with it all and instead have a specialist do the work for them – there’s no shame in that, as dealing with the death of a loved one is difficult enough as it is, but probate might not be as complicated as you initially thought.

It’s essentially identifying the deceased’s assets, paying off any debts and sharing out the remaining estate according to the will. And doing it yourself can save you and your family a pretty penny.

Do you need to use probate?

Before we go any further, it’s worth just double checking that you need to use probate at all. It really isn’t something you want to be doing if you don’t have to.

Indeed, 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 entirely sure, it’s well worth a call to HM Revenue & Customs’ Probate: general enquiries. If they say you need probate, they’ll tell you what forms you’re likely to need and can even provide some guidance on filling them in. You might as well get your taxpayer’s money’s worth out of the service.

What does the probate process involve?

Some estates are easier to deal with than others. But most probate cases follow the same process, which is outlined below:

1. Find the will

Once you’ve registered the death of your loved one and arranged their funeral, the first thing to do is locate their will (or confirm they didn’t make one).

Depending on the nature of the death, you might not have a scooby if they’ve got a will or not – as a nation, we’re not great about talking about these things, are we? However, all is not lost.

Reach out to the person’s solicitor, accountant or bank to see if any of them holds it. Still no luck? Which? has partnered with The National Will Register to enable executors of an estate to look for wills that have been registered and for wills that have not been registered.

There is a small fee involved but you’ll be able to say that you’ve done everything you can to fulfil someone’s wishes about how their estate is distributed.

If you have no luck on finding a will, then it will be necessary to proceed with administration of the estate under the rules of intestacy. These provide a strict order in which close relatives of the deceased will inherit.

2. Contact banks and other financial providers

The executors named in the will, or the people who will inherit if there is no will, then need to start telling all and sundry of the person’s death. Banks, building societies, mortgage lenders, credit card providers and insurance companies all need to be informed so that a picture of the deceased’s finances can be painted.

The good news is that you don’t have to call them all individually. The Death Notification Service is a free service which allows you to notify a number of member organisations – including banks and building societies – of a person's death, at the same time.

There’s also the Tell Us Once service, which lets you report a death to most government organisations in one go. You will be able to notify HMRC, DWP, DVLA, the Passport Office and so on in a few clicks.

3. Estimate and report the estate’s value

How’s your maths? Having received a response from banks and lenders, you need to weigh any outstanding debt against savings, shares and Isas, plus any wages that might still be owed.

Debts such as credit cards must be paid off, and that includes mortgages. Lenders will usually be reasonable regarding any outstanding debts, understanding the probate process takes a bit of time and that they will have to wait to be paid back out of the estate.

If the deceased had a valid life insurance policy at the time of their death, the pay-out from this can make settling any outstanding debts much easier. Not to mention, it can significantly increase the estate’s value.

Check out our article ‘How to find out if someone had life insurance before they died’ which will guide you on the steps to take to locate the deceased policy.

4. Begin the formal probate process

Now that you've done all the groundwork, you can apply for a grant of probate, which is the piece of paper that legally enables you to access funds, sort finances and share out assets the deceased accumulated.

If you’ve worked out that the estate is worth less than £5,000, you won’t need to go through the formal probate process. For estates over the threshold, there is an application fee of £155, with a £60 fee added if you apply yourself rather than via a solicitor.

5. Decide whether to use a probate specialist or DIY

You might get to this stage and be at the point where you want to hand everything over to a probate specialist. For some people, the whole thing might be a welcome distraction – but, for others, probate might be an added stress that they don’t need right now.

There’s definitely an argument to use a probate specialist if the estate is over the inheritance tax threshold as this adds extra complications.

Also, if the deceased had dependents who were deliberately left out of the will, but who might want to make a claim on the estate, having a third party, who is detached from the family, can be invaluable.

Here at QuoteSearch, we work with a dedicated team of legal experts with regulatory control to give you even greater peace of mind that your probate case will be handled accurately, leaving you with no surprises after the case has closed.

Find out more about how we – alongside our legal partners Honey Legal – can make the probate process a positive one for you and your family.