Probate (known as ‘confirmation’ in Scotland) is:
- The permission needed to carry out the wishes in a will, and;
- The process of managing someone’s estate after they pass away.
It includes applying for a grant of probate, paying any debts the deceased had, and distributing their assets as requested in their will.
The executor of the will is the person who administers probate. Usually the deceased will specify in their will who they want to executor to be.
How to start probate
The first step of the process is generally to obtain a grant of probate. This gives the executor the legal authority to begin the process of administering the deceased person’s estate (the process of handling the person’s belongings and money, including distributing it as laid out in their will).
Applying for a grant of probate is almost always essential. There are only a few situations where probate may not be necessary, for example:
- The estate is worth less than £10,000
- The deceased owned everything jointly with someone else, so they will just take on full ownership
- There is no will (although the process of distributing the estate of someone with no will is similar to probate)
In order to be sure they can administer the estate without applying for a grant of probate, the executor will need to write to each institution (e.g. banks) and provide a copy of the death certificate.
How long does probate take?
Obtaining a grant of probate usually takes 4-8 weeks. You should then expect the process of probate to take about a year. However, it may take longer if:
- The estate is particularly large
- The will is complex
- A dispute arises
- The estate contains assets abroad
How to apply for probate
There are a number of steps you’ll need to take in order to apply for probate.
1. Register the death
This needs to be done within 5 days. It’s recommended that you buy some back-up copies of the death certificate at this point, as you’ll need them throughout the process.
2. Value the estate
You’ll need to establish the deceased’s assets and debts, which in some cases can be simpler than others. You will need to contact:
- Any banks the deceased had accounts with
- Lenders with whom the deceased had loans from, including mortgages
- Fund managers or stockbrokers
- Pension providers
- The Department of Work and Pensions
- The relevant local authority in case there is outstanding council tax
- HMRC in case there’s outstanding tax
You can use the government’s Tell Us Once service, which lets you report the passing of your loved one to most government organisations in one go. When you register the death you’ll be told whether this service is available in your area, and if it is you’ll be provided with the phone number and a unique reference number by the registrar. Be sure to check which organisations will be notified, as there may be some that you still need to contact yourself.
Each time you inform a financial institution that the deceased had an account with, you’ll need to send them a certified copy of the death certificate (hence why it’s essential to purchase extra copies).
Once this has been done the deceased person’s assets will be inaccessible until a grant of probate has been obtained.
As part of this process you’ll need to get the property valued, if the estate includes one. You can value it yourself by looking at similar houses in the same area, but if your estimate puts the total value of the estate close to or over the inheritance tax threshold of £325,000, it’s a good idea to get a written valuation from a Chartered Surveyor.
If there are any other sizable assets, such as an artwork collection, it’s a good idea to get it professionally valued.
3. Fill out inheritance tax forms
You’ll need to fill out an inheritance tax form regardless of whether there is inheritance tax to pay, and you’ll need to do it before you apply for probate.
As a general rule, if the estate is worth less than £325,000 there shouldn’t be any inheritance tax to pay and you’ll need to fill out form IHT205. If there is inheritance tax to pay you’ll need to complete form IHT400.
You’ll need to provide the inheritance tax reference and the value of the estate, as well as upload a copy of the death certificate. You’ll also need details of any cash gifts made by the deceased within seven years of their passing, as they may be taxable.
Read more about inheritance tax of gifts made before the person passes away.
You can read more about inheritance tax applications and fill out inheritance tax forms online.
4. File probate applications
The fourth step is actually applying for probate. You can apply for probate online or by post. You’ll need to fill out a probate application form (PA1P) if the person left a will, and a PA1A form if they didn’t.
You’ll also need to confirm the details you’ve provided are correct by signing a statement of truth – a declaration that confirms the facts stated in the document are true.
5. Pay probate fees
Applying for probate is free for estates under £5,000. Any estate worth more than that costs:
- £215 in England and Wales (although this is lowered to £155 if you apply through a solicitor)
- £200 in Scotland
- £220 in Northern Ireland
It’s worth paying to get several extra copies of the grant of probate (if you get them initially they cost £1.50 per copy, but if you get them later they’ll cost more). It is standard to order at least five extras.
6. Pay inheritance tax
If inheritance tax is due it must be paid in advance. As long as the deceased person has the funds, this can usually come from one of their accounts (you’ll need to provide the bank with an IHT423 form).
Where a large proportion of the estate is property or shares, HMRC may accept inheritance tax in instalments, although usually at least 10% will be required in advance.
Once this has been done, hopefully probate will be granted and the process of the executor distributing the person’s assets can begin.
7. Release a death notice
Whilst not an official step in the process of obtaining probate, it is advised to put a deceased estate notice in The Gazette once probate has been granted. Whilst this may seem old-fashioned, it’s important than any unidentified creditors can come forward before the deceased’s estate has been distributed. Otherwise you might be held personally responsible for any remaining debts.
What if probate is contested?
There are several reasons that probate could be contested.
Granting probate could be prevented or delayed by someone known to the deceased entering a caveat. This could happen if, for example, there are questions about the legitimacy of the will.
When someone does this, they’ll need to state the reason for the caveat within eight days. If they don’t the caveat will be removed.
If they do state the reason, it’ll be for the court to decide who probate is granted to. It is possible to contest a will after probate has been granted, but the process is a little more complex. For more information, see our guide on the process of contesting a will.
Whilst it is possible to carry out the probate process yourself, many people choose to hire a solicitor to do it for them. The Law Superstore can put you in touch with up to four legal professionals, to lighten your load and give you peace of mind.