Discover everything you need to know about the probate process and how long it takes in our helpful guide below.
If you are made the executor of someone’s Will when they die, it is your responsibility to ensure that their wishes expressed in the Will are carried out. This process is known as probate.
The probate process is a new experience for most executors, so here’s a short guide to help you understand what is involved and how to carry out your responsibilities successfully.
Even if you’re not an executor yourself but just a beneficiary, this guide explains what the process involves and how long you might have to wait before receiving your inheritance.
In this article we will cover:
What is probate?
Probate broadly means ‘getting official permission to carry out the wishes in the Will’.
How long does the probate process take?
The probate process takes around a year on average, from the date of the person's death to the estate being distributed.
It may take less time, but even simple estates usually take a minimum of six months to complete probate.
Who is the executor of the Will?
The person who has to carry out the steps in the probate process is the executor.
Usually, the deceased will have named this person in their Will, and they can choose up to four people to share the responsibility. But if the deceased hasn’t named anyone, the executor will be the next of kin.
Incidentally, this is why it’s always important to choose an executor (and to make a Will in the first place), because the next of kin won’t necessarily the best person to take on this responsibility.
What are an executor’s responsibilities?
Executors are responsible for paying any outstanding debts (from the estate) and distributing assets to beneficiaries.
The list of tasks includes:
- Gathering all the assets in the estate
- Valuing the estate
- Calculating and repaying any debts (e.g. a mortgage, loan or credit card balance)
- Completing inheritance tax forms and making payments
- Paying funeral costs
- Making distributions to beneficiaries of the estate
- Drawing up accounts to show how the estate has been administered
Much of this may sound daunting, but you can appoint a solicitor to handle the process on your behalf (and you may be able to pay them out of the estate, if you obtain permission from the named beneficiaries).
Learn more: what is a DIY funeral?
Do you need to apply for grant of probate?
To administer a person’s Will as executor, you usually need to get permission from the court first.
This process is called applying for grant of probate. Or, if the person hasn’t left a Will, it is called applying for grant of letters of administration.
You don’t need to get grant of probate if either:
When is inheritance tax payable?
HMRC have made changes to reporting rules if the person died on or after 1 January 2022.
Whether you are required to file an inheritance tax return for the deceased depends on a few factors.
If the individual died after 1 January 2022, the estate is classified as excepted (those that are low value, exempt or the individual was not UK domiciled), and the deceased was living in the UK, then you don't need to file one.
For those who do, it should be filed at the same time as applying for the grant of probate.
Basically, you submit the two forms together. It can help to get inheritance tax planning advice at this stage to make sure you’re paying the correct amount and handling everything in the most tax-efficient way.
You have to pay any inheritance tax before a grant of probate is issued.
You can make the payment up to six months from the end of the month in which the person died (so, if the person died on 14 June, you would have until 31 December to pay the bill).
How does the probate process work?
Probate typically takes between nine months and a year to get everything settled.
Here are the main steps you need to take if you’re an executor:
- Register the death – You need to do this within five days of the date of death in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and within eight days in Scotland. This step is to get the death certificate, which you’ll need to start executing a Will.
- Inform organisations and beneficiaries – Contact companies the deceased dealt with, such as their bank, utility company, insurance providers etc, so they can close the account and stop any additional charges. You should also let any beneficiaries know that they are entitled to a share of the estate as soon as possible.
- Submit grant of probate and inheritance tax forms – Both of these forms can be found and submitted online (though you will need to send paper versions of some documents, like the Will). There’s a lot of detailed information to include, so look online for a checklist to make sure you don’t miss anything. It should take around eight weeks for probate to be granted but it can take longer if there is anything missing or incorrect on the forms.
- Pay inheritance tax – You may need to take out a loan to do this (as the bill will be due before the assets of the estate are released), so it’s worthwhile making arrangements asap.
- Pay off debt – These include liabilities like their credit card balance, mortgage or other loan agreements (for their car or furniture etc), but it excludes student loans. You may need to come to an agreement with the creditor to pay the debt if there isn’t enough in the estate to cover it.
- Claim on life insurance – If the person who died has a life insurance, mortgage or funeral insurance policy in place, contact the provider to claim the payout. This sum may be used to cover the inheritance tax bill or funeral costs.
- Share out the assets – Everything remaining should be shared out with beneficiaries according to the wishes in the Will. If someone named in the Will has died, their share will usually go back into the estate to be divided out between the remaining beneficiaries, unlss the Will states that their share should go elsewhere.
What happens when a Will or probate is contested?
In situations where people believe the Will is not valid or that probate hasn’t been executed properly, they can contest it.
To do this, they will need to lodge a caveat with the Probate Registry, which will stop the probate being issued until the dispute is resolved. The caveat expires after six months, but it can be renewed.
What are the costs related to probate?
You need to pay an application fee of £273 for a grant of probate if the estate is worth over £5,000.
Other probate FAQs
Do you need probate for premium bonds?
The process for cashing in Premium Bonds after someone dies depends on the total amount they owned.
Like banks, NS&I requires legal paperwork called a grant of representation if the bonds exceed a certain value.
While banks may go up to £50,000, NS&I's limit is £5,000.
So if the deceased had over £5,000 in Premium Bonds, you'll need probate or letters of administration to access the money.
Do you need probate to sell a house?
Typically, a house can't be sold until probate is granted.
Without the legal paperwork, the executor lacks the authority to sell the property on behalf of the estate.
Attempting to sell before getting probate can create legal issues down the road.
However, there are some exceptions. If the home was jointly owned with a surviving partner, they may be able to sell without probate.
Or, if the deceased had set up a trust owning the property, the trustee could potentially sell it without needing to go through probate first.
But in most cases, it's advisable to wait for the probate process to conclude before listing the property.
Do you need probate if your wife or husband dies?
You may or may not need to go through probate if your wife or husband dies depending on how your assets were owned.
In general, probate isn't necessary if everything is jointly owned, like your home, bank accounts, building society accounts and savings accounts.
That said, probate is often still needed if the deceased spouse had over £10,000 in assets that were solely in their name.
Some examples requiring probate include: individually held bank accounts, personal savings accounts not jointly owned, pension funds in the late spouse's name, shares owned by the deceased, ISAs held only in their name, and life insurance policies belonging to them.
A financial adviser can help you manage some of the more challenging aspects of probate, such as inheritance tax, life insurance, trusts and liquidating assets (such as investments) for distribution.