Dealing With Probate

The legal process after someone dies

When a loved one dies, you may find yourself asking: what now?

It’s a big question, emotionally. It’s also one that needs answering in a practical sense. Certain things need to happen when a person passes away, and many of these will fall to those closest to them. But what’s involved in this process? What steps need to be taken?

Get a medical certificate

This is the official document that confirms the cause of death, where that can be ascertained at the time. In some situations, a post-mortem and perhaps even an inquest will be needed to establish the cause.

 Register the death

This needs to be done at a local register office within five days of death. The registrar will need the medical certificate and will ask for various other pieces of information about the deceased. It can be helpful to take along key documents, like the person’s birth certificate and driving licence.

Where an inquest is needed, you’ll be given an interim death certificate enabling you to register the death. A final certificate will be issued once the inquest has been completed. You’ll also get a certificate that allows burial or cremation to take place.

Track down the Will

These are usually filed away at home or stored in solicitors’ offices. (Read our blog: Finding the Will). The Will may express particular wishes about a funeral (read more here about why it can be a good idea to include these in Wills). And it will name an executor, or executors, whose job it is to deal with the deceased’s ‘estate’ (their assets and liabilities).

Remember that there may not be a Will. If that’s the case, the rules of intestacy will apply. An ‘administrator’ (rather than executor) will be appointed to deal with the estate. They are usually a member of the deceased’s family.

Notify others

The government’s online ‘Tell Us Once’ service is a useful way of letting various government departments (HMRC, Passport Office, DVLA, for example) know about the death. Your registrar should explain this at your appointment – if not, ask.

There will be various others to contact, including the deceased’s employer, insurance companies, banks, credit card company, pension provider, utility providers.

Arrange the funeral

There are all sorts of funeral plans available that cover various costs, so you should check to see if the person who died had any sort of cover in place.

Remember to take account of funeral wishes the deceased may have expressed, although it’s not a legal requirement to follow them.

Value the estate

There’s an important threshold to bear in mind: £325,000. This is the trigger for inheritance tax (IHT). If the total value of the deceased’s estate is less than £325,000, IHT liability will not kick in. Tax will be payable on anything in excess of that, with certain exceptions (things that have been left to the person’s spouse or civil partner, for example).

Note that inheritance tax has to be paid by the end of the sixth month after the person died, so the process of valuing the estate needs to happen relatively swiftly.

 Probate

Probate is the legal permission an executor needs to be able to deal with the assets and liabilities of the person who has died. (The equivalent, if there’s no Will, is called Letters of Administration.)

Probate isn’t always needed – it depends on what the deceased owned and how they owned it. Once granted, probate enables assets to be gathered in, debts to be settled, distribution to beneficiaries, and loose ends tied up. For an executor to do this properly (and to avoid personal liability) all estate-related information needs to be considered, which includes claims by creditors. Executors therefore seek out creditors by putting a notice in The Gazette, giving details of the death and contact details so that anyone owed money by the estate can get in touch.

Deal with the estate

The executor first needs to pay debts and any tax owed by the estate. Once that’s been done, assets can start to be distributed to beneficiaries.

That’s a quick guide to some of the main things that need to happen after a person has died. Individual circumstances are all-important, so there’s no substitute for advice on your situation, whether you’re a family member or friend of the deceased, or an executor navigating your way through the process.

Our team is here to help. For advice about dealing with probate or estate administration, contact Emma Howlett or a member of the Private Client team on 0808 256 2917.