What Is Probate and Where Do I Start?

Have you heard the term ‘probate’ but aren’t sure what it really means?  Are you an executor of a will or have a relative passed away and you’re not sure where to start with probate?  Don’t worry, you are not alone; we’re here to help clarify what probate is and how to manage it.

Probate is essentially the legal process that any deceased person’s estate has to go through, whether there is a will or not.  But how long does probate take?  Well, that depends on a number of factors.  Firstly, the size of the deceased’s estate and secondly, whether the deceased has left a will that details his wishes, particularly in terms of who inherits what part of the estate.

One final factor to take into consideration is how long the probate service takes and currently, the average time to wait for Grant of Probate – the authority given to beneficiaries to proceed with administering the estate – is about five weeks.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process by which an estate is divided after someone has died.  The process includes any financial and physical assets, such as property, and how it is distributed to the beneficiaries. 

Generally, if there is a will whereby the deceased has detailed who is going to inherit what in terms of money, property, or any other assets, the probate process can take up to 12 months to complete.  However, if there isn’t a will in place, probate can take much longer.  What will delay the process, even more, is if there are any disputes between the beneficiaries or over the administration of the estate, which is known as contentious probate

However, there are cases where probate is not required:

  • If the estate is worth less than £10,000 and there are no shares or land as part of the estate.  If the estate is particularly small and there is only a token amount in a bank account, the bank has the discretion as to whether they need Grant of Probate to release the funds.
  • If any money, i.e. bank accounts, or property are owned jointly with a spouse or civil partner.

In reality, the threshold for probate ranges from £5,000 to £50,000.  Each bank or financial institution has its own policies regarding a deceased person’s assets.

If there is a will, an executor will have been appointed to administer the estate and apply for a Grant of Probate.  The executor can be a family member, a friend of the deceased, or the solicitor that holds the will.  If there is no will or executor, someone representing the deceased will need to apply the authority needed to administer the deceased’s estate.  This is usually the next of kin and they will need to apply for a ‘grant of letters of administration’ from the court. 

There are other circumstances where letters of administration are required:

  • You have been left the entire estate;
  • There are no executors named in the will;
  • The executors are not prepared to accept the role.

Only the executor of the estate can apply for a Grant of Probate.  If there is no executor of the estate, next of kin or a close relative has to apply for letters of administration in order to handle the deceased’s estate; they are known as the administrator of the estate, not executor. 

Where do I start to apply for probate?

Once the death has been registered (which is within five days), you should apply for probate within six months of the death.  This is not because there is a time limit on applying for probate.  It is because there is a time limit on paying HMRC any Inheritance Tax that may be applicable.  In practice, reporting the estate’s value to HMRC and applying for probate is usually done at the same time as both are needed to finalise the estate.

Whether there is a will or not, the probate process is similar.  The first step is to find out the value of the estate, such as money in the bank, the deceased’s belongings, and any property held in the deceased’s name (even if it is joint names, the value still needs to be ascertained).  You will need to consider:

  • Bank accounts, pension funds and any other financial assets, such as mortgage on a property, savings and life assurance policies.
  • Any property, whether in joint names or not, will need to be valued by a local estate agent.  It is always worth getting three to four valuations.
  • Any outstanding debts, such as utilities, mortgage payments, credit cards, loans or any other monies owed by the deceased.
  • Any gifts the deceased made that are above the official allowance within the previous seven years (not including Christmas, birthday or anniversary gifts) – they may be subject to Inheritance Tax.

In most cases, you will need a copy of the death certificate and/or will to send to the relevant organisations. 

Once you have this information, it will need to be reported to HMRC who will work out if any Inheritance Tax is due.  This will also tell you if you need to apply for probate or letters of administration.  This process can take several months and a response from HMRC may take even longer.  However, once you have the valuations, have spoken to the banks and/or financial institutions, and assessed debts and gifts, you can apply for a Grant of Probate.

Applying for probate can either be done through a solicitor, often the solicitor that holds the deceased’s will or a family solicitor, or you can file for probate yourself online.  If there is a will, you will need the following to apply for probate:

  • An official copy of the death certificate (if applying online, this will be a scanned image);
  • The original will;
  • The application fee.

One point to note is that you can only apply for probate online if:

  • All the named executors are alive and able to make decisions; and
  • The deceased spent most of their life in England and Wales.

If there is no will, the next of kin or a close relative of the deceased will need to apply for letters of administration which you can do yourself via post using the form PA1A, which is a probate application form.  You can download the forms from an online probate service or from a probate registry near you. 

At Probates Online, we are able to offer a professional probate service online that is efficient and affordable.  If you are an Executor of a will and need to apply for a Grant of Probate or would like to take advantage of our entire Estate Administration service, visit our website for more information or contact us today.