This is one of a series of articles about wills and probate. You can find an overview of the probate process and an explanation of the legal terms in the first article of this series.
This article explains what you should do when a friend or family member dies, particularly if you are, or are likely to be, an executor of the deceased’s estate.
Call a doctor
When someone dies, a doctor should be called. He or she will issue a notice of the death, stating the cause (or causes).
Within 5 days, the death should be registered at a Registry Office. Although you can apply for the documents at any office, to avoid delays it is best to apply to the local office in the area where the person died. If you apply elsewhere, the documents are first sent to the office local to the death, then forwarded to the office where you applied.
You can only register a death if you are one of the following:
- a relative
- someone present at the time of death
- someone in a position of authority in the place where the death occurred (such as the manager of a care home)
- the person arranging the funeral
The Registry Office will require completed forms and, if available, proof of identity of the deceased person. Those could be:
- a birth certificate
- a council tax bill
- a driving licence
- a marriage or civil partnership certificate
- a NHS medical card
- a passport
- a utility bill as proof of address
You will need to give the Registrar details of the person’s identity and details of the identity of any husband, wife or civil partner, living or dead. These include:
- full name and any names previously used (such as a maiden name)
- date and place of birth
- last address
- whether the deceased was receiving any benefits or State Pension
The Registrar will provide in return:
- a Certificate of Registration of Death (form BD8)
- a certificate for burial or cremation (the green form)
Obtain copies of the Certificate of Registration of Death
You will probably need four additional copies of the death certificate in order to provide proof of death to banks, insurance companies, the registrar of companies and the Probate Registry. Although you could request for the original to be returned to you each time you request information or a transfer of control, it is more convenient and faster to have multiple copies and send multiple requests at the same time.
Since the cost of obtaining additional copies of the Certificate of Registration of Death increases after a certain time, it is best to buy all the copies you will need as soon as possible after registration.
Arrange the funeral
The executors are not responsible for arranging the funeral, but if they are close friends or family, one or more might volunteer to do so.
A will usually specifies whether the testator would like his organs to be donated, and where he would like to be buried or cremated. Further details about the funeral or how a beneficiary should use a gift are usually written in a separate letter.
Technically, the deceased no longer owns his or her body on death, so unlike the instructions for the division of the estate, instructions regarding disposal of the body do not have to be followed exactly. If the wishes are impractical or unaffordable, the organisers of the funeral cannot be held to account by law if they do not carry them out.
The cost of the funeral and other expenses are paid from the estate proceeds and are the first creditor paid.
The final last will and testament must be found along with all accompanying documents such as codicils (varying the will) in order to ascertain who has been nominated as executors and who the beneficiaries of the estate are.
We explain about executors and their role in the probate process in an earlier article.
Locating the deceased’s last will and testament can be difficult. Unless you have been told by the deceased before his or her death where it can be found (hopefully in a safe place or you have been given a copy), you may need to carry out a search of his or her home, and possibly contact businesses that might store it on his or her behalf. We give some examples of where to store a will safely.
Common places to store a will include at the principal home of the deceased, with his bank or solicitor, with a will storage service, or at the Principal Registry. If at the latter, a receipt will have been issued, which can be sent to reclaim the will.
Once the will has been found, executors must be certain that it is the last copy. An executor would usually check that no other copies are held at other likely places.
The will should be checked for validity. It should be signed by the deceased, and there should be two witness signatures as well. Those witnesses should not be beneficiaries. If it is not valid, an earlier valid copy (if one existed and still exists) should be sought.
If you were given a copy of the will by the deceased while he or she was still alive, but cannot find the original after death, probate can be granted on a copy until the original is found. The Registry will require proof that the copy is truly a copy of the latest will, and proof that it hadn’t been revoked (cancelled) before death.
Notify beneficiaries named in the will
A will does not need to be read out, either before hopeful beneficiaries or a solicitor. The executors may write to the beneficiaries to inform them of their entitlement to part of the estate. This could be done before or after probate has been granted. Of course, a will could be challenged, or found to be invalid, changing entitlements and values of legacies.
Be aware that only your executors have a legal right to know the contents your will after your death and before the estate is fully distributed. Afterwards, only the beneficiaries of the residue have the right to see it and to the estate's accounts. So there is no obligation to tell anyone before the distribution of the estate whether they are a beneficiary or what they might inherit.
Identifying the beneficiaries may be difficult, particularly if the will leaves a gift to a group of people.
If a beneficiary dies before the testator, then the gift does not take effect. However, if the beneficiary is a child, grandchild or great-grandchild and he has children, the children may claim entitlement on an equal basis between them.
Marriage automatically revokes a will, but divorce does not. However, a former husband or wife is treated as if he or she died on the date of divorce, so cannot act as an executor or be a beneficiary.
As soon as it is clear who the named executors are, those people should:
- thoroughly search the testator’s papers and online records for the documents that will be needed to administer the estate. These will include documents relating to:
- bank accounts
- shareholdings and shareholding accounts
- car registration
- bills and other unpaid debts
- if the deceased was a shareholder in a private business, check with the other shareholders what happens under the shareholders agreement when someone dies. Other shareholders may have rights that affect the value of the deceased's holding.
- inform the provider of the death and change the postal address for each service to that of the executor who will sort out that service. Roles can be divided to reduce the amount of work for any individual. For example, one executor might handle personal affairs whilst another might handle business affairs.
- ensure the house of the testator is securely locked, that utilities have been disconnected, and that buildings and contents insurance policies are in place. Valuable items should be removed for safekeeping and records of where they are should be made. Make sure that anyone who has keys to the property returns them to you, including cleaners, carers, and close family. It may be easiest to change the locks.
- set up a mail redirection service.
- open a bank account for cash proceeds of the estate.
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 will template.
If you need any help choosing, just ask us.