Probate

There can be a lot to think about after someone dies. It can feel overwhelming and complicated and, even more so, when it may be a suicide. We have outlined a lot of information on this page, about what happens legally after someone’s death, the processes you might experience, and have tried to answer some of the questions you may have. We know this page is long – we thought it would be more helpful to provide a comprehensive view – so that you can read the pieces that are most helpful.


If you think you would rather speak to someone directly, please call the National Bereavement Service. They provide a free service and will be able to take you through anything we’ve presented on this page. You may wish to call them before you pay anyone to help you with the probate process, as you may be charged for advice, which they offer for free.


We wrote this page as an unbiased, accurate, overview of the probate process, in collaboration with Lisa and Jean from the National Bereavement Service (NBS).

If you would like to speak to the National Bereavement Service, call their free helpline on 0800 0246 121.

How you may be feeling

You may feel completely overwhelmed, not ready to go through this process, or like you are intruding on someone’s life. These are all completely normal, especially when the death may be to suicide. It’s important to remember that, while things need to be sorted out, you are not alone. The process may seem long, and need strength and determination to complete. We have included a couple of places who will help simplify everything for you below:

Tell Us Once is a service that lets you report a death to a range of government services in one go. When you register a death, the registrar will give you a phone number and reference number to get started. Tell Us Once will notify people such as the Passport Office, HMRC, DVLA, DWP and your local authority so that you don’t have to make all those calls yourself. They are also able to help you identify if the person has tax debt or is owed tax, and will be able to signpost you to helpful services for banks and other financial services. 

The National Bereavement Service is there to support people with all the legal processes when someone dies. They give practical guidance free-of-charge through their website and phone number – 0800 0246 121. They can also refer you to a solicitor. They also offer counselling in partnership with St Giles Hospice.

Introduction to probate

Probate is the term used for the legal process required to deal with someone’s property, money and possessions, known as their estate.

Applying for the legal right to deal with someone’s estate when they die is called ‘applying to probate’. The process is very similar regardless of whether the person who died left a Will or did not write a Will (called intestacy). If a Will has been written, the terms of the Will dictate who will inherit; however, if there is no Will, the law determines who can inherit. You can read more about inheritance on the UK Government website.

Probate typically takes 6-9 months but can go on longer. It can take this long because there are different people and organisations collecting information, and sometimes because it takes time to go through the legal process. 

To find out more about applying to probate, you can call the National Bereavement Service, or visit ‘Applying to Probate‘ through the Government’s website.

Leaving a will, vs. not leaving a will

If the person left a will, you’ll get a ‘grant of probate’.

If the person did not leave a will, you’ll get ‘letters of administration’. The nearest next-of-kin has the responsibility to apply for a grant of letters of administration.

Death by suicide

The circumstances of a death don’t usually affect probate. The process may be delayed slightly by the inquest and when waiting for a final death certificate, but often probate can continue with an interim certificate. The distribution of the estate may have to wait until the conclusion of the inquest (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

When probate is not needed

You may not need probate if the person who died had jointly owned land, property, shares or money – these will automatically pass to the surviving owners; or if the person only had savings or premium bonds (so no property or other assets).

If you’re not sure whether you need to go through probate, you can read below, or call the National Bereavement Service on 0800 0246 121, who will be able to talk it through with you as part of their free service.

People involved with Probate

There are some particular people involved in Probate, and some steps to take. We’ve laid these out below. 

Administrator

If the person dies without a will – known as intestacy or intestate – then someone will be appointed an Administrator, and they will act as an executor. An administrator needs to be appointed through the grant of a ‘Letters of Administration’ to have legal authority. The administrator is usually the closest living relative of the person who died. It’s important to note that you usually can’t apply to be the administrator if you are not a blood relation of the person who died, including spouses. 

The entitled person carries out the processes of probate as if there was a Will, and their appointment is confirmed by the Probate Registry with the grant of the Letters of Administration.

Asset Holders

Asset Holders are simply the organisations who hold the accounts and investments of the person who died. They may be a bank, building society, or a company holding shares. They may require the executor or administrator to go through probate if the value is more than £5,000, but this differs for each company, so it might be helpful to check. Probate is also needed when a house or flat is transferred from one owner to another or is sold after the person dies.

Beneficiaries

These are the people who will inherit after the probate process, because of the person who has died. If you are the executor or administrator, you may wish to write to the people who are beneficiaries early in the process, to let them know that the process is ongoing, and it may take a long time. Beneficiaries are not entitled to any details of the process, and often do not know more information until the end of the process.

Probate only usually applies to high value items, such as savings, houses, or other expensive jewellery. It doesn’t apply to clothing, household items or other low-value items. These can be given out as stated in the will, or by the administrator as they see fit. High value items should not be given away until after probate has been granted. If you are unsure of the value of an item, it should be valued by an expert first. 

People who have been declared bankrupt are unable to benefit from a legacy by someone who has died. The money must go to the official receiver or bankruptcy trustee.

Creditors

A creditor is anyone who is owed money by the estate. These could be large amounts, such as the unpaid part of a mortgage or bank loan/overdraft or small amounts owed to a window-cleaner or newsagent.

Insurance policies, such as car insurance, usually expire when a person dies. You may need to remind the company that the person will not be renewing their policy. The Tell Us Once service will notify the DVLA. 

Executors

Those named Executor(s) of the Will are entitled to administer the estate. If the person who died has written a Will naming executor(s), they apply for a grant of probate.

If there is only one named, they can decide to apply for probate and administer the estate or to appoint a legal professional to carry this out.

If there is more than one named executor (assuming both are alive and considered mentally capable) , an agreement must be reached on how the estate is to be dealt with. Being named as an executor does not mean you have to be in charge of the estate – you can call the NBS to find out how to not carry out the responsibility. 

Probate Companies

Also known as Trust corporations, they employ legally qualified people to carry out estate administration.  These are regulated but under a separate system from solicitors and do not perform general legal work, instead work with other companies or have specialist departments for non-probate legal processes. You do not need to use a company, but you may if you wish to. 

Solicitor

Some solicitors specialise in probate, and you might find it helpful to ‘engage’ a solicitor to complete probate, but you don’t have to. You can do the probate service yourself. If you would like to find out more about this, we suggest you may find calling the National Bereavement Service helpful before you pay any money to a solicitor. They will be able to advise you for free, and they have a list of solicitors they trust to be fair, and have expertise in the process. 


The steps of Probate

  1. Find the Will and check its validity.

    You may think they made a will but you can’t find one in their home. You could look for a certificate of deposit, which will have been sent to them if they arranged for the will to be kept by the Principal Registry of the Family Division. If you can’t find this, don’t worry, you can still check with the Registry to see if they hold the will. If the person died in a care home or a hospital you could check to see if the will was left with them.

    You should also contact the person’s solicitor, accountant or bank to see if they hold the will.

    If you can’t find a will, you will usually have to deal with the estate of the person who has died as if they died without leaving a will.

    For a will to be valid, it must be made by a person who is 18 years old or over, made voluntarily and without pressure from any other person, and made by a person who is of sound mind.

  2. Identify who will carry out the probate.

    One or more named executors if the person left a will, or the Administrator if the person died without a will, or the will can’t be found will usually apply for probate. You can also appoint a solicitor to do this on your behalf.

  3. Beneficiaries are identified.

    Beneficiaries are named in the Will. In the case of Intestacy, the Rules of Intestacy define who may inherit.You can find out more on the Government website.

  4. The decision needs to be made as to whether you would like to use professional assistance.

    You do not need professional assistance, but it might be helpful to if the estate is of high value, complex with different assets involved, you don’t know a lot of the information you feel you need…. or you are just feeling overwhelmed by everything you need to do, and are in a position to pay someone else to help.

    We would like to suggest that you speak to the National Bereavement Service to help you make this decision. They are a charity that can offer you unbiased guidance and even suggest professionals who could help, if you decide that’s what you’d like to do. Their details are at the top of this page.

  5. Value Estate.

    This is done by finding all assets and debts at the date of death.

  6. Place statutory notices.

    This is not necessary in all cases and will be dependent on the nature of the estate. More details can be found on this government webpage

  7. Complete appropriate Inheritance Tax forms and pay inheritance tax if required.

    You can learn more about inheritance tax forms and Inheritance tax here. You can also access copies of inheritance tax forms on the Gov.UK website.

  8. Complete the application for probate forms.

    You can find examples of probate forms you may need to complete here. These forms can often be complicated and confusing; please don’t hesitate to call the NBS on 0800 0246 121 if you would like some support when working through these forms.

  9. Once the grant of probate/ representation has been received all asset holders need to be contacted to arrange for the release of the assets.

    As detailed above, Asset Holders are the organisations who hold the accounts and investments of the person who died, e.g. a bank, building society, or a company holding shares. Different asset holders will have different rules when it comes to accessing assets, so do be sure to check what these are before transferring or withdrawing any assets.

  10. All creditors need to be paid.

    For examples of Creditors, please see ‘People Involved with probate’ above.

After Probate has been Granted

Once a probate grant is received, any property can be sold. It can be put up for sale before probate, but you may wish to wait until afterwards. The estate is then distributed between the beneficiaries.

Other Factors

Below, we have included some further information on specific situations. We have included general guidance, but it’s important to look at your situation carefully, as there is often variation. The National Bereavement Service will be able to chat with you about your circumstances.


  • Life insurance policies

    If the policy has a nominated beneficiary, the policy will not form part of the estate and is not subject to probate. The policy is instead governed entirely by the terms and conditions of the policy. Make sure you read the terms and conditions of the policy. Payment is usually only made after the inquest.

    Some policies have a clause that in the case of a death by suicide there may be a delay in payment. In this instance, an insurance company may refund any premiums paid during the delay period but not make the full payment.


  • Debt 

    If the individual that has been found to have considerable debts at the time of their death this can take time to resolve, as often there is a set hierarchy of the order in which debts need to be paid. You are only responsible for the deceased person’s debts if you had a joint loan or agreement or provided a loan guarantee. You aren’t automatically responsible for a person’s debts if they die.

    However, debt is not ‘washed away’ when the person dies, and their estate may need to pay back debts. There is a system for determining which debts are paid, in what order, and how much. It may be helpful to seek professional advice before trying to pay any debts yourself. 


  • Tax

    If the person who died lived in England, Scotland or Wales, you can use the Tell Us Once service to find out whether the person owed or was owed tax, and what might need to be paid. They should then contact you about the deceased’s tax, benefits and entitlements automatically. 

    Some estates will carry Capital Gains Tax and Income Tax as well as Inheritance Tax. This is because the person who died may have made an income from a rental property and be liable for income tax, or they could simply have paid too much or even too little Income Tax, and so owe tax to the government, or could be owed a tax refund. 

    If you are unsure, it might be helpful to ask someone like your solicitor or the National Bereavement Service for advice to your circumstances. 


  • A Contested or challenged Will

    There are circumstances where the Will can be contested, or the person died intestate, and there are complications. It may be helpful to call the National Bereavement Service to discuss your case. 

If you would like to speak to the National Bereavement Service, call their free helpline.