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What is the probate process and how long does it take?

Updated 08 January 2021

5min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

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.

What is probate?

Probate broadly means ‘getting official permission to carry out the wishes in the Will’. But the term is now more commonly used to describe the whole process of administering someone’s estate, from getting court permission to paying the inheritance tax bill and dividing the assets.

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.

You can be appointed as executor without being asked. If you really don’t want the responsibility, you can apply to ‘renunciate’ (renounce your responsibility) through the courts.

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).

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:

  • The estate is small and simple (typically less than £5,000 held in bank accounts), or
  • All of the estate was held jointly, in which case it automatically passes to the survivor

When is inheritance tax payable?

Even if you don’t think any tax is due, you need to file an inheritance tax return at the same time as applying for 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 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). If you don’t have enough money to cover the payment, you can pay in instalments or you may be able to take out a loan that you would pay off once the estate is distributed.

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:

  1. 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.
     
  2. 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.
     
  3. 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.
     
  4. 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.
     
  5. 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.
     
  6. 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 pay-out. This sum may be used to cover the inheritance tax bill or funeral costs.
     
  7. 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, unless 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.

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. However, once a Grant of Probate has been issued, it should be only around six weeks before the estate is distributed.

What are the costs related to probate?

You need to pay an application fee of £215 for grant of probate if the estate is worth over £5,000. The only other costs you need to factor in are inheritance tax (though the estate should reimburse you for this) and solicitor fees if you decide to get a professional to manage it all for you.

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.

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About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.