Probate step-by-step: what to do when a loved one dies

When a person dies it’s natural to feel grief, longing and perhaps confusion as you remember your time together and all the cherished memories. Quite often, though, loved ones are also left feeling overwhelmed from having to navigate all the practical, legal and administrative obligations that come with dealing with a person’s death.

When a loved one passes away, you’ll no doubt have a number of questions about what you need to do. You might be wondering how the estate will be administered, how probate works, and whether or not inheritance tax must be paid. Here we break down what you need to do as soon as a loved one has passed away and in the weeks following their death.

1. Register the death

The first step is to obtain a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death from the person’s doctor. You then need to register the death with their local registry office within five days.

The registry office will need to see the person’s medical certificate and, if possible, their:

  • Birth certificate
  • NHS medical card or number
  • Driving license
  • Proof of address (e.g. a utility bill or bank statement)
  • Marriage/Civil Partnership Certificate, if applicable

They will ask you:

  • The person’s full name, which includes any previous names
  • Their date and place of birth
  • The date and place of their death
  • Their everyday address
  • Their most recent occupation
  • Any benefits they were receiving, including a state pension
  • The name, date of birth and occupation of their spouse or civil partner, if applicable

The registry office will give you a death certificate. It’s wise to pay for several copies of the death certificate because banks and utility services often need verified copies to be able to close accounts. They will give you a certificate for burial or cremation, sometimes known as a ‘green certificate’.

You will be given form BD8 (a certificate of registration of death) to fill in. If the local authority offers the government’s Tell Us Once service, the registrar will let you know. This service enables you to inform several government services about the death at the same time, including:

  • The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)
  • HM Revenue and Customs
  • Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)
  • Passport Office
  • Local Council (this covers council tax, electoral register, housing benefits and services, and blue badge if the person had a disability or mobility issue)

2. Find the Will to identify the executor

The person responsible for administering the estate is the ‘personal representative’. If there is a Will, the personal representative chosen by the deceased will be named as the executor. There can be more than one executor.

An executor’s duties include:

  • Notifying all relevant organisations about the death
  • Paying for the funeral or reimbursing the person who has paid 
  • Identifying, valuing and calculating all the deceased person’s debts and assets
  • Searching for missing or unclaimed assets
  • Applying for a Grant of Probate (see below)
  • Managing any valid claims against the estate
  • Paying inheritance tax (IHT)
  • Paying outstanding income tax and Capital Gains Tax
  • Locating all beneficiaries of the Will, even if it means paying a tracing service
  • Correctly distributing the estate to the beneficiaries

By performing this role, executors accept the legal responsibilities that are attached to it – these last for the duration of the administration of the estate and can also carry on into looking after a trust, if there is one.

In cases where there isn’t a Will, someone (usually the next of kin) might need to apply to be an administrator in order to be able to deal with the person’s estate. Where the value of an estate is small, this may not be necessary. The estate administrator will apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration from the Probate Court (see number 5, below).

If you cannot find a Will, there are steps you can take to locate it – QualitySolicitors are happy to advise you on and support with the process.

3. Arrange the funeral

Once you’ve registered the person’s death, you can arrange the funeral. You can organise the funeral yourself or use a funeral director. If you decide to organise the funeral yourself, you will find advice on the government’s website here. The deceased person might have left funeral instructions in their Will or Letter of Wishes.

If you’re seeking the help of a funeral director, choose one who is a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors or The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) for complete peace of mind.

The average cost of a UK funeral is £3,757, including funeral director’s costs.[1] If there is a Will, the executor is normally responsible for the funeral. If there isn’t a Will, it is the family’s responsibility. It’s worthwhile checking whether the deceased person had arranged a funeral plan to cover costs or if they had any insurance cover for this.

If there is no funeral cover, the funeral can be paid for out of the deceased person’s bank account – most banks will release money for funeral costs straightaway. Anybody who pays for a funeral has a right to claim the money back from the estate. If the person didn’t have enough money for funeral costs, the family or executor can apply for Funeral Expense Payment or Bereavement Support Payment. More details on those government support schemes can be found here.

4. Value the estate

It’s important to value the estate so that a Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration can be granted and for inheritance tax and Capital Gains Tax purposes (see below). The estate also needs to be valued so that any debts can be paid off before the beneficiaries receive their share.

Valuations are risky for personal representatives as they can be personally liable if mistakes are made. Valuations must be accurate as far as possible, and beneficiaries must not receive a portion of the estate until all debts, taxes and other liabilities have been paid.

The gross value of the estate usually comprises:

  • Expensive items such as property, cars and antiques which will involve obtaining professional valuations
  • Shares which will be valued at the day of death
  • All other monetary values that have been obtained by writing to banks, energy companies and local councils

The net value of the estate is calculated by deducting liabilities, such as funeral expenses and debts, before inheritance tax exemptions have been applied.

A proficient probate solicitor reduces the risk for personal representatives by putting measures in place to protect them from financial liability. This may include recommending a QualitySolicitors Financial Asset Search, which will check for any unclaimed or lost assets with more than 200 financial institutions. This will help to discharge any personal liability if a case needs to be reopened because of later discovered assets. Contact QualitySolicitors to see if this service is right for you.

5. Pay any inheritance tax (IHT)

Inheritance tax is a one-off tax that’s paid on the value of the person’s estate over £325,000. This rate excludes any ‘main residence’ allowance that applies to direct descendants of the deceased who will inherit a property. If the estate’s value is below £325,000 it must still be reported to the HMRC.[2]

Over the basic tax-free threshold, 40% tax is payable; this tax rate can be reduced if some of the estate is left to charity. In order to work out how much, if any, inheritance tax must be paid, the personal representative needs to calculate the value of the assets and subtract bills, debts and funeral expenses.

There are tax reliefs, exemptions and ways to reduce inheritance tax, such as moving any unused tax threshold to a spouse and gifting away property before death. Gifts made up to seven years before a person’s death will be taken into account in any tax calculations.

The first tax payment must be made within six months of the date of death, so it’s important to complete inheritance tax forms and calculate the tax due at the very beginning of the probate process. Once Inheritance Tax is paid an application can be made to the HMRC for a clearance certificate proving that all due Inheritance Tax has been paid.[3]

6. Apply for a Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration

A Grant of Probate (also known as a Grant of Representation) will only be issued to the executor or executors named in the Will. If the person didn’t leave a Will (or their Will is invalid), the next of kin can apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration instead.

A Grant of Letters of Administration are similar to a Grant of Probate; they both enable the deceased’s personal representatives to deal with the administrative, financial and legal aspects of the estate. The main problem with the former is that family members might disagree about who is the best person to deal with the estate. There are different rules about who can apply to act as an administrator and the timing of the application is important. If in any doubt, contact QualitySolicitors for advice.

7. Finalise estate accounts and distribute assets

The personal representative is responsible for collecting in and distributing all assets. This means keeping an accurate record of all bank accounts, shares, assets and any special items that the departed loved one would like specific people to have.

Sometimes this process may involve selling property. For a guide on selling property as an executor, read QualitySolicitors Hopleys GMA’s blog here.

There might be a life insurance policy to redeem which can involve extra questions and administration. At the same time beneficiaries are found and contacted, their entitlements are verified and their identities checked. 

Once all debts are paid and all assets are collected in and recorded, a final copy of the estate accounts are sent to the beneficiaries. Providing there are no legal challenges, the balance is distributed accordingly.

Getting support with probate

QualitySolicitors can support you through these difficult times with practical advice on what to do at every stage. Whether you are a Will executor, family member or friend, we can mimimise your burden by helping you to administer the estate, complete probate and calculate inheritance tax.

If you’re looking for legal support following the death of a loved one, call us to see how we can help on 08082747557.


[1] Money Advice Service, How much does a funeral cost?

[2], Inheritance Tax

[3], Application for a clearance certificate

Posted in: Probate

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