What is probate?

Probate is the process of administering someone’s estate once they have died. This includes applying for either a grant of probate or letters of administration; gathering the deceased’s money, assets and possessions, paying off any taxes or debts and distributing the remaining estate to the beneficiaries.

In this guide: We explain what probate is, how it works, when its required and how you can save money by doing it yourself.

How does probate work?

To understand how probate works when someone dies, you need to establish whether a will is in place or not.

Probate with a will

If the deceased has left a will, the named executor, typically someone they trust such as a relative, friend, solicitor or specialist probate service provider will be responsible for applying for a ‘grant of probate’ which basically gives them authority to administer the deceased’s estate according to the will.

If the nominated executor or executors are unwilling to do this, they can pass the responsibility onto a substitute executor.

Probate without a will

If there is no will in place, the responsibility for obtaining probate will fall on a relative, determined by the following Order of Entitlement:

  1. Spouse of civil partner of the deceased
  2. Child or children of the deceased
  3. Grandchild or grandchildren of the deceased
  4. Parents of the deceased
  5. Siblings of the deceased
  6. Nieces and nephews of the deceased
  7. Other relative of the deceased

Instead of applying for a grant of probate, the appointed relative applies for ‘letters of administration’ which allow them to administer the estate according to the rules of intestacy

The role of either the executor or the administrator is:

  • Collect all financial documentation relating to the deceased’s estate
  • Register the death (where appropriate)
  • Inform organisations of the death sending death certificates where appropriate
  • Freeze accounts
  • Open a bank account on behalf of the estate
  • Establish money owed by and to the deceased
  • Prepare a list of property, money, possessions and debts
  • Establish if the estate is liable for inheritance tax and if so, pay it
  • Pay off any debts
  • Claim against any life insurance policies
  • Distribute the remaining estate according to the will or rules of intestacy

When is probate required?

Probate is required when the deceased owned a property or had savings or stocks and shares over a certain value. Banks will typically release funds without a grant of probate for savings of less than £5,000 or £10,000 for stocks and shares however the threshold does depend on the organization.

When is probate not required?

Probate is not required when the assets are held in joint names with a spouse or civil partner as the estate will pass to them. You may also not require probate if the estate is small, typically less than £5,000, there is no property, or the debts outweigh the value.

How do I apply for probate?

To apply for probate you need to have first reported the value of the estate to HMRC to see if it’s liable for inheritance tax. You can then apply for your grant of probate or letters of administration however any IHT due should be paid before the grant is issued.

You can apply for a grant of probate either online or by post however you can only apply for letters of administration by post.

Applying for probate online

You can apply for probate online if you have the original will and the person who has died lived permanently in England or Wales. You will need to sign a statement of truth and send certain documents to the probate registry once you have completed the online form.

Applying for probate by post

 To apply for probate by poist you need to complete the following forms:

  • A PA1P form for probate with a will
  • A PA1A form for probate without a will

Alternatively you can call the HMRC Probate and Inheritance Tax Helpline on 0300 123 1072 to have the forms sent to you, or for help completing the form.

When applying by post for probate, you will also be asked to send the following documents:

  • The original will and three copies
  • The death certificate
  • The inheritance tax forms
  • The probate fee

How much does probate cost?

The cost of probate is currently a flat rate of £215 for estates valued over £5,000, or £157.50 when applying through a solicitor. Probate fees however are scheduled to change later this year to a sliding scale based on the value of the estate.

  • Estate value less than £50,000 – no fee
  • Estate value £50,000 - £300,000 - £250
  • Estate value £300,000 - £500,000 - £750
  • Estate value £500,000 - £1 million - £2,500
  • Estate value £1 million - £1.6 million - £4,000
  • Estate value £1.6 million - £2 million - £5,000
  • Estate value £2 million or more - £6,000

These changes in the cost of probate where scheduled to take place in April 2019 however they have been delayed because of the question mark over Brexit.

How long does probate take?

Probate in the UK usually takes between 6 to 9 months to complete however it does depend on the size and complexity of the estate. For example, probate is likely to take longer for an estate with multiple properties, shares and accounts than one with a single bank account.

DIY probate vs using a probate solicitor

DIY probate is quite common and worth considering as it’s a much cheaper option than using a solicitor or probate company, especially if the estate is straightforward. For more complex estates however it may be worth the expense of using a probate specialist.

You may want to consider using a probate specialist if:

  • The estate is over the inheritance tax threshold
  • The estate is complicated and there is no will
  • The estate is complex or bankrupt
  • Dependents were deliberately left out of the will
  • There are assets and property abroad
  • The validity of the will is in question
  • The person who has died lived outside the UK

The cost of probate services can be thousands of pounds and will vary depending on whether you choose a solicitor, probate specialist or bank. Probate fees can be charged in the following ways:

  • fixed fee
  • percentage of the estate
  • hourly rate

Therefore it is worth considering all your options carefully before going ahead.

Prepaid probate

Prepaid probate lets you pay for probate services in advance at today’s prices. In a similar way to a prepaid funeral plan, prepaid probate gives you the opportunity to arrange everything in advance, removing the worry and expense from your family.

What should I do next?

There is more information on DIY probate on the governments website, take a look at Applying for probate .

Or if you would like help and advice from a probate specialist, you can contact Farewills, the company we recommend for Wills and probate services here.

Alternatively, if you feel you need specialist advice, you may want to contact a local solicitor.

Find out more about probate costs

Your questions answered

  • Do I need probate?
    • The need for probate depends on the size of the estate. If there’s property and savings over a certain value, probate may be required. It also depends on whether there’s a surviving spouse or civil partner as in this instance, the estate passes to them without the need for probate.

  • Who can apply for probate?
    • The named executor of a will can apply for probate or more specifically a grant of probate, or alternatively a solicitor or probate specialist can apply on their behalf. In the absence of a will, a relative can apply for letters of administration giving them authority to administer the estate.

  • Is probate required if there is a will?
    • Probate may be required regardless of whether there is a will in place or not. It all depends on the size of the estate and whether there is a surviving spouse or partner who will automatically inherit their assets.

  • What is the purpose of probate?
    • The purpose of probate is to distribute the estate of someone who has died in accordance with the law, the deceased’s will and in the absence of a will, the rules of intestacy.

  • What debts are forgiven at death?
    • When a person dies, the debts owed are paid from their estate. Surviving partners are only liable for the debt if it was agreed in joint names.

  • What does it mean to be in probate?
    • Probate is the legal process of settling the estate of someone who has died. This includes:

      • Identifying their property, money and possessions
      • Paying off inheritance tax and outstanding debts where required
      • Distributing the estate to beneficiaries
  • How do you avoid probate?
    • If a person has already died and probate is required, there is no way of avoiding it. However if you’re making plans for future probate requirements, there are certain ways you can reduce the value of your estate, perhaps through trusts, helping to avoid probate when you die.

      In this instance we would recommend you talk to an estate planner who will help you understand your options.

  • What is the difference between a grant of probate and letters or administration?
    • A grant of probate is the documentation the executor applies for seeking authority to administer the deceased’s estate when a will has been left. Letters of administration are what relatives apply for when there is no will in place.

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