Article reference: UK-IA-WIL22

An overview of probate

Although most people ask an estate administration specialist to manage the winding up of the estate of a deceased relative or friend, it is possible to do it yourself if you have been named as an executor in the will, or meet the criteria to apply to become an administrator.

However, acting as an executor or an administrator is a significant commitment – a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Whilst the administration of an estate usually takes up to 9 months, it can take much longer (sometimes decades), and can require many hours of work. So if you do decide to take it on yourself, be prepared for the work involved.

This article provides an explanation of the terminology and an overview of the administration process. Throughout, it links to other articles in this series that cover topics in greater depth.  

Explaining the jargon: terms used in wills and estate administration

Estate is simply a term to mean all property and possessions, including debts, of a person. An estate can have any value – positive or negative. While we might imagine an estate as extensive land and property, the estate of someone could be as simple as cash in a purse.

The testator is the person who has made the will. Although it is a masculine noun, it can be used to describe a man or a woman. The feminine noun is testatrix, used less commonly if the person who makes the will is female.

An executor of a will is the person responsible for administering the estate of a testator once he or she has died. A will names who the executors could be, but being named in the will does not necessarily confer automatic appointment. Find out more about executors.

Technically, probate is a legal document that appoints executors (named in the last will and testament) and grants them legal power to administer the estate of the deceased.

Probate is the process that proves that the will is valid. Without it, executors rely on the validity of the will to authorise their actions. If the will was invalid, the executors would be acting without power, and could be pursued for damages by creditors or beneficiaries.

But more generally, probate is also used to mean the process of administration. To carry out probate work is to administer the estate.  

An overview of the estate administration process

The following is a high level overview. It starts when the testator dies.

  1. Register the death and obtain multiple copies of the death certificate. If you are close family or friend, you may also take on responsibility for organising the funeral and burial or cremation. Find out more about registering a death.
  1. Establish whether the deceased made a last will and testament. If he did, find the will to discover who the executors and residuary beneficiaries are. Find out more about locating the last will and testament.
  1. Contact the executors to find out whether each is willing to act, and able to act. If there is no will, or the will does not name executors who are still living, determine who will act as an administrator of the estate. Create an agreement in writing between the personal representatives (the executors or the administrators to be) as to who will be responsible on a day to day basis for which tasks.
  1. Make sure the house of the deceased is securely locked (if uninhabited), that personal possessions of value are removed to a safe (recorded) place, and that car, buildings and contents insurance policies are in place.
  1. Arrange for post addressed to the deceased to be forwarded to the address of an executor.
  1. Write to the utility companies to inform them of the death (including with the letter a copy of the death certificate) and requesting that supplies are disconnected, or placed in another person’s name (such as a spouse if he or she continues to live in the property). Request an outstanding bill to the date of death. Read more about securing the estate.
  1. Write to or visit the Personal Application Department of the nearest or otherwise most convenient probate registry office for the forms required to apply for a grant of probate. Read more about obtaining forms to apply for for probate.
  1. Open an executor’s bank account.
  1. Carry out an inventory of the physical assets in the estate and obtain valuations. Read more about carrying out an inventory.
  1. Write to all financial and other business organisations with whom the deceased dealt (including a copy of the death certificate) to obtain a list of all cash, investments and debts payable. Depending on the type of organisation, you may also need to request other information.
  1. Prepare an account (a list) of all assets and all liabilities of the estate. Assess whether a grant of probate is required. If the estate is insolvent, or complex, contact a probate specialist.
  1. If the value of the estate exceeds the inheritance tax threshold, raise money to pay the inheritance tax liability (a requirement before probate can be granted). Read more about assessing whether inheritance tax needs to be paid.
  1. Apply for and obtain a grant of probate. Complete the probate forms and return them to the Probate Registry. The Probate Registry will contact you to make an appointment to visit the Registry. All executors are required to visit the Registry or a local office to sign and swear the forms and pay the probate fee and inheritance tax due. The Probate Registry will send the grant of probate and any copies requested to the executors by post.
  1. Advertise for creditors. Read more about advertising for creditors.
  1. Collect in the assets. Send a copy of the grant of probate to each organisation that holds assets on behalf of the deceased as proof of the executor’s power to administer the estate. The organisations should transfer the assets to the executors (or possibly directly to the beneficiaries) and close the deceased’s accounts.
  1. Confirm the final value of the estate with HMR&C.
  1. Prepare tax returns to the end of the tax year in which the deceased died. Request an Application for a Clearance Certificate, complete it and have all executors sign it to discharge the executors’ liability for any other taxes.  
  2. When all assets have been collected, pay the debts of the estate, including funeral expenses and taxes relating to the period up to death. Set aside amounts required to pay parties involved in the administration of the estate.  
  3. Once six months have passed since probate was granted, check that there are no outstanding claims against the estate.
  1. Draw up accounts for the estate, listing all assets, valuations for each and debts outstanding. Obtain the approval of the accounts from all of the residuary beneficiaries, and send each a copy.
  1. Distribute the estate in accordance with the will. Read more about distributing the estate and the rules on intestacy here. Once the estate has been fully distributed (make sure cheques and transfers have cleared), close the executor’s bank account.

The administration is complete. All records of the estate, including the accounts, should be kept for at least 12 years in a safe place.  

More information

We provide more information about wills in our series of articles about making a will. A great deal of that information explains how a will is structured, and should be useful reading to an executor or administrator.

If you haven’t made a will yourself, we encourage you to do so. To help, we provide some of our more straightforward wills (likely to be suitable for most people) absolutely free with no catches or conditions. There is no need to visit a solicitor, or buy inflexible forms from the corner shop that may be difficult to customise. Just visit our library and choose the most suitable last will and testament template. If you need any help choosing, just contact us.

Please note that the information provided on this page:

  • Does not provide a complete or authoritative statement of the law;
  • Does not constitute legal advice by Net Lawman;
  • Does not create a contractual relationship;
  • Does not form part of any other advice, whether paid or free.
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