What to do when someone dies and leaves a will

Even if there is a will, sorting out an estate can appear complicated and many people use solicitors to take care of it. But this can cost thousands of pounds, even if the estate is small, or instructions are simple. For a few hundred pounds, you could sort out a simple estate yourself. Find out how to do it yourself, what’s included in an estate and when you might need a specialist.

What does sorting out the estate involve?

Sorting out the estate when there’s a will means getting probate and distributing the estate as instructed in the will.

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What is probate?

Probate is a legal document that allows the executor of the will to sort out a person’s estate as instructed in their will.

If there is a will, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you will apply for ‘Grant of probate’. This is also known as a ‘Grant of representation’. In Scotland, this is called ‘confirmation’.

When you don’t need probate

You might not need to get probate if:

  • the estate was held jointly with the person’s surviving spouse or civil partner, for example a joint bank account
  • the estate doesn’t include land, property or shares
  • the money held in the account is within the banks limits. What this limit is and the policy for accessing it varies depending on the provider.

In the above situations, you just need to contact the bank or building society to let them know that the person has died.

They might ask for a copy of the death certificate as proof.

The surviving spouse can continue to access that joint account.

Who should sort the will out?

When a person leaves a will, they normally would have chosen at least one person to act as the executor of the will.

The executor is normally a relative or a friend, or sometimes a solicitor or a bank.

It’s common for the executor to be an heir of the estate.

If you’re the executor of the will, you’re responsible for getting probate.

To get probate, you can either:

  • use a probate specialist, which can cost thousands of pounds, or
  • do it yourself, which usually costs a few hundred pounds.

If the value of the estate is more than £5,000, it costs £215 to apply for probate (2021/22 figures). It’s free if the value of the estate is less. Extra copies of the ‘Grant of Probate’ cost £1.50p each.

The costs are usually paid out of the estate, provided there’s enough money.

Use a probate specialist

If you don’t feel up to the task or if it’s a complicated estate, it’s a good idea to use a probate specialist.

It’s also sensible to use one if there are doubts over the validity of a will.

If you decide to use a probate specialist, expect to pay several thousand pounds for their services. But costs can vary significantly.

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Get probate yourself

If you’re prepared to take on the task of getting probate, you can save quite a bit of money.

You could then pay a solicitor for smaller things, such as checking through the probate forms.

If you decide to do this, you’re legally responsible for making sure that any claims on the estate, such as debts and taxes, are paid before the estate is distributed to the heirs.

You can now access the Probate Service online, so there is no need to download the forms. You can use this service if you’re the executor and you:

  • have the original will
  • have the original or interim death certificate
  • have already reported the estates value.

If you haven’t reported the estate’s value, you can do this at GOV.UK

When you’ve completed your online application, you’ll be told what documents you need to send to the Probate Registry. Most of these can be sent by uploading a photograph of the document, but the original will must be sent in by post.

Preparing for probate

The first step in applying for probate involves some ‘hunting’ and a little paperwork.

Specifically, you need to find the will and make copies of certain documents.

These documents are needed as you go through the process of getting probate.

Find the will and make copies of some important documents

The deceased should have told you, a relative or a friend where they’ve stored their will.

Also check for:

  • Codicil: this is a legally binding document that the deceased might have written to make additions or changes to their original will.
  • Letter of wishes: this is a document that the deceased might have written to explain certain things in their will, or tell what kind of funeral they want. The letter of wishes isn’t legally binding.

You might need more than one certified copy of the following documents:

  • the will
  • birth certificate
  • death certificate
  • the codicil(s), if there are any
  • marriage or civil partnership certificate, if the person was married.

If you’re not applying online, you’ll need to attach copies of these various documents to probate forms, and to access the deceased’s bank accounts, investments or life insurance.

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How to find the value of a deceased person’s estate

Before you can apply for probate (or confirmation if you live in Scotland), you’ll need to value the estate.

When you fill in the probate forms, you need to put in how much the estate is worth.

To value the estate, you need to:

  1. Find out the value of any assets, such as property, private pensions, savings, shares, jewellery, or valuable collectibles. If you think the item is worth more than £500, get it professionally valued.
  2. Find out the value of any gifts that the person gave away in the seven years before they died. You’ll need to include these in the value of the estate. Certain types of gifts that were given away before the person died might incur Inheritance Tax.
  3. Find out how much debt they have, if any, such as a mortgage, credit cards or loans. Include funeral costs as part of the debt if the estate is paying for the funeral. If there’s joint debt, you’ll need to work out how much the deceased’s share is of that debt.
  4. Work out how much the estate is worth when the debts are paid.

You’ll also need to work out if they had any jointly owned assets, such as a bank account or a property.

Depending on how it’s owned, you might have to include it in the value of the estate.

Value jointly owned assets

Before you can work out the value of the deceased’s share of a jointly, you’ll have to find out how it was owned.

Examples of this type of assets are a car, a house or a piece of land.

They might have owned this asset either as:

  • a ‘joint tenant’, or
  • a ‘tenant in common’.

Asset owned as ‘joint tenants’

  • both owners have equal rights to the whole asset.
  • the asset automatically goes to the other joint owner if one of them dies.
  • the deceased can’t pass on their ownership of the asset in their will.
  • you have to value the asset and include it when working out the Inheritance Tax.

But there might not be Inheritance Tax to pay on this asset if the value falls within their tax-free allowance or if the joint owner is the deceased's husband, wife or civil partner. 

Joint bank accounts

Joint bank accounts are nearly always held as ‘joint tenants’.

So, while ownership of the account usually automatically passes onto to the joint account holder, you need to value it as part of the deceased’s estate.

To value the deceased’s share of a joint bank account, you need to find out the balance in the account and divide it by the number of account holders. However, this might not be the case if the account holders have agreed otherwise.

For example, they might have signed a declaration of trust stating that the account is held by them as ‘tenants in common’, rather than joint tenants. So on the death of one of the account holders, their share as defined in the declaration of trust passes under the terms of their will or intestacy, rather than to the other account holder.

HMRC usually scrutinises joint accounts held by unmarried couples or other combinations (such as a parent and child) more closely. They usually treat account holders as owning a share of the funds which is proportionate to their contributions to the account.

For example, if one account holder provided all the funds, the whole balance of the account will be treated as belonging to them when they die. This means it’s potentially subject to Inheritance Tax. This because the normal exemptions from Inheritance Tax might not apply, and the surviving joint holder(s) could be liable for a certain amount of tax.

Withdrawals from the account will usually be set against that person’s own contributions as far as possible. Withdrawals that exceed a person’s own contributions might be treated as a lifetime gift from the other account holder. This might be subject to Inheritance Tax.

Inheritance Tax due on death, which is attributable to the funds in a joint account, must be paid by the surviving account holder who has inherited funds by survivorship rather than necessarily from the deceased’s estate. This is unless there’s different wording in any will made by the person who died.

From an Income Tax perspective, for joint accounts passing automatically to the new owner by survivorship, income arising after death belongs to the surviving account holder.

For accounts held as tenants in common, income attributable to the deceased’s share will pass to their estate and be subject to tax in it. The usual rules on taxation of estate income on beneficiaries on any distribution of capital to them would then apply.

Asset owned as ‘tenants in common’

  • each owner can own a different share of the asset
  • the asset doesn’t automatically go to the other owner if one of them dies
  • the deceased can pass on their ownership of the asset in their will
  • you have to value the deceased’s share of the asset and include it when working out the Inheritance Tax. But there might not be Inheritance Tax to pay on this asset if the value falls within their tax-free allowance.

Not sure if an asset is jointly owned?

If the deceased owned other assets, such as shares, you’ll need to contact the company:

  • to find out how it was owned
  • work out how much the deceased’s share of the asset was, and include that as part of the estate.

For property or land, if you can’t find this information in their papers and records, you can get it for a fee, from:

How to collect the deceased’s assets

You can get access to the deceased’s financial assets (such as bank accounts) by asking banks and other institutions to release the deceased’s assets to you. 

You should open a separate bank account for the estate, to avoid getting it confused with your own personal bank accounts.

Opening a separate bank account will also make it easier for you to see the value of the deceased financial assets, and might also help avoid any disagreements between beneficiaries of the deceased’s will.

The banks might refer to this type of account as an ‘executorship account’ or client account if solicitors are acting for them. 

Safety of money held in an executorship account

If you choose to open a separate bank account, you should also consider opening it with an entirely separate bank to your own.

This is so you can be sure that any money held in the bank account has the full Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) protection.

While the FSCS does allow a temporary £1million deposit protection for up to six months for ‘proceeds of a deceased’s estate held by their personal representative’, they can’t guarantee this protection if your bank or building society goes bust.

The standard amount of protection is £85,000 per financial institution (some banks share a licence, eg, Halifax and the Bank of Scotland), which might be lower than the value of the deceased’s estate. 

Working out Inheritance Tax

When you’ve got the value of the estate and how much debt the deceased had, you need to work out the Inheritance Tax due.

This tax is due within six months from when the person died. Interest is charged if it’s not paid within six months.

To help avoid paying this interest, consider paying some or all of the Inheritance Tax before you finish valuing the estate.

If you’re paying this from your own account, you can claim it back from the estate.

Applying for probate or confirmation

When you’ve valued the estate, you’ll need to fill in a few forms and send it to the nearest Probate Registry office.

You’ll also need to pay an application fee, and some or all the Inheritance Tax (if any) to HMRC.

How much you need to pay and what forms you need to fill in depends on where you live.

Scroll down for information on what to do in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

You don’t usually need to apply for probate if the estate was either:

  • jointly owned, and so passes to the surviving spouse
  • didn’t include land, property or shares.

If you’re applying online, you won’t need to download the forms, but you will need to send in the original will. The address to send this too varies depending on where you live and you will be given the correct address once you have completed your online application.

The payment is also made when you’ve submitted your application online.

You no longer need to swear an oath, but you will have to sign a statement of truth to confirm the contents of the probate application are true. This can also be done online if you’re submitting an online application.

If you live in England or Wales

The application fee is £215, or £155 if an estate uses a solicitor to apply for probate, on all estates over £5,000.

Those between £300,001 and half a million pounds will pay £750. Estates between £500,001 and a million will pay £2,500. While estates priced over £2 million will now pay £6,000 to make a grant of probate application.

The reform to a grant of probate will also allow grieving families to make the application online.

You need to fill in:

  • Probate Application Form PA1
  • Inheritance Tax Form IHT400 if the estate is worth more than £325,000
  • Inheritance Tax Form IHT205 if the estate is worth less than £325,000.
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If you live in Scotland

Depending on the size of the estate, there are different forms to fill in:

  • for small estates (worth £36,000 or less), you need form C1 and C5(SE)
  • for large estates (worth over £36,000), you need form C1 The confirmation fee varies depending on the size of the estate.

To find out how much you need to pay and for help completing the forms, contact your local sheriff clerk.

If you live in Northern Ireland

You’ll need to ask for an appointment with your local Probate Office. When you’ve got an appointment, they’ll help you complete the necessary forms.

The Probate Office will also ask you to bring various documents, such as the will and death certificate, to your appointment.

The fee is £261 (2021/22) for estates worth more than £10,000. There’s no fee to pay if the estate is worth less than £10,000.

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Paying Inheritance Tax

You’ll need to pay some, if not all, of any Inheritance Tax due before probate is issued.

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If you think you’ll struggle to pay the tax because you need to sell assets from the estate first, you could ask HMRC for a grant of credit.

A grant of credit means that you can get probate first so that you can sell off the assets to pay the tax.

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Paying off debts, taxes and distributing the estate

Pay off debts and taxes

When you have probate, you have the authority to contact the organisations that are holding the deceased’s assets, such as the bank or private pension provider.

Interest and fees will often stop for debts that are solely in the name of the person who has died when you’ve notified the creditor.

They’ll ask for a copy of the probate or confirmation letter before they’ll release the assets.

You can then pay the various debts (if any) and the taxes due.

If the assets are in the form of property or shares, you might need to sell this to pay off the debts and taxes.

Selling property

  • You can get advice on valuing a property and the costs involved as well as selling tips on the Which? website
  • Read our Quick house sales guide if you’re thinking of using a quick house sale company instead.

Selling shares

You might want to consider doing this yourself, if the amount of shares is small.

For a complex portfolio or if the shares are worth a lot, it’s a good idea to get professional advice. 

Distribute the estate

After you’ve paid the debts and taxes, you can distribute the estate as the deceased wanted in their will.

Write a final estate document

You might find it useful to write a ‘final estate document’ to show all the money that has come into and gone out of the estate, as beneficiaries and people owed money are entitled to request accounts. 

This document should include a list of all the assets, liabilities (money the deceased owed to people and companies) and administration expenses. 

It should also show the final amount of money to be distributed to people named in the deceased’s will.

This document must be approved and signed by the executor of the will (you), and the main beneficiaries of the will. 

Paying tax on money you receive in a will

If you receive money in a will, you might have to pay further tax on this income, or you might be able to apply for a tax refund.

The estate administrator will need to complete and provide all beneficiaries of the will with the HMRC form R185

Find out more about completing an R185 form on the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group website.

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impartial help for all your money and pension choices.
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MoneyHelper is the new, easy way to get clear, free,
impartial help for all your money and pension choices.
Whatever your circumstances or plans, move forward with MoneyHelper.

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