Family Bereavement FAQs

Key tasks are getting a medical certificate showing the cause of death from a doctor (two certificates if the deceased is to be cremated); registering the death and obtaining a death certificate; and arranging the funeral.

Other practical tasks include securing the deceased’s home and belongings. If they died in hospital or a care home you will need to arrange for the body to be collected and get their personal belongings back.

Your first step is to find your relative’s will so that you can check who the executors are, as they are primarily responsible for these tasks.

In due course, the executors will also be responsible for administering your relative’s estate: collecting up all the assets, paying all the deceased’s debts and liabilities, sorting out any inheritance tax and distributing the estate to the beneficiaries named in the will. At that stage the executors should seriously consider whether they will need legal help from a solicitor.

 

If you were married but your spouse has died, you may be entitled to claim bereavement benefits. Civil partners have the same rights.

A bereavement payment is a one-off, tax-free lump sum of £2,000. You must claim this within 12 months of your spouse’s death.

If you have dependent children and you are entitled to child benefit you may also be able to claim widowed parent’s allowance — a weekly payment that is part of your taxable income.

Alternatively, you may be able to claim bereavement allowance if you are over 45 but have not yet reached state pension age. You cannot claim both widowed parent’s allowance and bereavement allowance.

In all three cases your spouse must have paid enough national insurance contributions or died because of an industrial accident or disease. Other conditions apply too.

You can find out more from the Bereavement Service on 0345 606 0265. If you prefer, a solicitor can handle your claim for you.

How long it takes to administer an estate depends on its size and complexity. There can sometimes be a lot of work involved, even in the smallest estates.

It might be possible to sort out a relatively simple estate, with no inheritance tax to pay, in a couple of months. In more complex cases it can take months to get probate and a year or more before you have finished.

Going through all the deceased’s paperwork and contacting all the different organisations involved can be particularly laborious and time-consuming. You can help speed the process up — and keep legal costs down — if you do much of this yourself. But you are likely to want your solicitor to handle the more complex issues, such as completing inheritance tax forms and calculations.

Solicitors’ fees are typically based on an hourly rate, a percentage of the value of the estate, or a combination of the two. Sometimes a solicitor will help for a fixed fee. Total costs of around 2 per cent of the value of the estate are fairly typical, but it does depend on the circumstances and how much work is involved. Your solicitor will explain the likely costs when you first contact them.

When someone dies, the property they leave behind is called their ‘estate’. Their will names the executors who will be legally responsible for collecting in all of the estate, paying off any debts and liabilities, and distributing the estate to the beneficiaries under the will.

Executors are legally responsible for:

  • Identifying everything in the estate — for example, cash from bank accounts, insurance policy proceeds and pension payments.
  • Valuing the assets. Specialist valuers may be needed to value some assets such as the home or shares in a family company.
  • Calculating any debts and liabilities of the estate — mortgages, loans, credit cards and so on.
  • Completing inheritance tax forms, dealing with any inheritance tax due.
  • Applying for a grant of probate.
  • Paying funeral costs (or reimbursing whoever has already paid them).
  • Collecting in all the assets and paying the debts and liabilities.
  • Making distributions to beneficiaries in accordance with the terms of the will. You may need to pay a tracing service to find some of them.
  • Drawing up estate accounts for the beneficiaries so they can see that everything has been accounted for.

Executors can also act as trustees if the will sets up a trust — for children under 18, for example.

As executor, you only act as a representative. For example, any income from investments in the estate during probate gets added to the estate and does not belong to the executors. Similarly, you are not personally liable for the deceased’s debts or liabilities. However, you do have a legal duty to secure the estate for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

Check whether her will is at her home, or held by her bank, her solicitor, a will safe service, the Principal Probate Registry or a relative or close friend. Checking through her papers may help you find any records.

Remember that any expression of her wishes, however informal it looks, may be her will or part of it. A will isn’t necessarily a formal, printed document drawn up by a professional.

If you find a will you should check, as far as you can, that it is the last will she made and that there are no supplemental ‘codicils’ making adjustments to the main will. If in any doubt at all, take legal advice.

You should also look out for side letters — often called ‘letters of wishes’ — that she may have left with her will. These can explain unusual or surprising bequests and help avoid challenges to her will.

If she didn’t make a will, legal rules called the intestacy rules apply. These specify how her estate will be divided up among her relatives.

No-one is obliged to be an executor. Your sister can sign a form removing herself as executor (called ‘renouncing’ her executorship) and file it at the Probate Registry. However, she must not have interfered in or taken any part in looking after the estate — what lawyers call ‘intermeddling’. Once she does this, she loses the right to renounce her executorship and must carry on.

A solicitor can draft a renunciation for your sister.

Another option is for your sister to say she wants ‘power reserved’ when applying for a grant of probate. This means she can legally leave it to you (and any other executors) to administer the estate, but may be called upon later if you and the other executors are unable to carry on for any reason. You should take legal advice before taking this route.

When someone has died, their bank (and other organisations) may ask for proof that you are entitled to deal with their affairs. If the amount involved is relatively small (typically below £10,000), or the account is in joint names, they may only need to see a death certificate.

But normally the executors named in the will need to obtain a ‘grant of probate’. If there is no will, a spouse, civil partner or other close family needs to apply for ‘letters of administration’. Either of these can be referred to as a ‘grant of representation’. The application is made to the Probate Service.

Getting a grant of representation can take several months if the estate is complex. You need to value your husband’s estate and submit inheritance tax forms to HM Revenue & Customs. If any inheritance tax is due, at least some of it has to be paid within six months (though in some cases payments can be spread over up to 10 years) — so you may need to pay before you have a grant of representation.

A solicitor can help you with the whole process and with inheritance tax issues.

There are some specific rules about who can register a death, and in fact the death should be registered by one of the following (listed in priority order); a relative who was present at the death, a relative who witnessed the deceased’s last illness, a relative living in the area where the death occurred, a non-relative who was present at the death, an owner or an occupier of the building where the death occurred, or the person who is arranging the deceased’s funeral.

If (from the list above) you’re responsible for registering a death, then bear in mind that this responsibility cannot be delegated, and in fact not registering a death is against the law.

You must register the death, usually within five days, and you have to attend the register office in person. You can go to any register office but if you go to the one for the area where the person died you will get your documents immediately. Otherwise, there may be a wait of several days.

When you contact the appropriate register office, they’ll make an appointment to see you and they’ll also confirm the information and documents they will need to see.  Usually this means you’ll need to take all or some of the following related to the person who died; their full name and home (or last) address, date and place of birth, date and place of death, NHS number, birth certificate, marriage certificate, occupation, marital status (single, married, divorced, widowed), spouse’s date of birth, any pension or social security details.

The registrar will issue you with a certificate of registration of death (used for sorting out state pensions or benefits) and a certificate for burial or cremation (the ‘green form’) which authorises burial or an application for cremation.

You may also want to pay for one or more death certificates. These are copies of the official entry in the death register and prove that the death has been registered. You will need the death certificate to sort out your relative’s financial affairs — for example, to show to their bank, to inform utility suppliers and so on.  Some people often opt to purchase several copies of the death certificate when they visit the register office to register the death, as it can subsequently take time to order copies.  If you do need copies of the death certificate then this can be done through the DirectGov website.

 

When you register your uncle’s death the register office will offer to contact various official bodies for you to tell them about his death. These are:

  • HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for tax and benefits such as child benefit and tax credit.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions for other benefits such as income support or state pensions.
  • The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to cancel his driving licence.
  • HM Passport Office to cancel his passport.
  • The local council to deal with various local services.

It can be an upsetting job, but your uncle’s executors (the people he named in his will to look after his affairs after his death) or administrators (the relatives who are entitled to look after his affairs if he did not make a will) will also need to go through his papers, bank statements and so on to make a list of other organisations to contact. These could include:

  • His landlord or his mortgage company.
  • His employer, for life insurance and death-in-service benefits under workplace pension schemes.
  • His personal pension provider.
  • His bank or building society and any other savings and investment providers such as National Savings & Investments (for Premium Bonds).
  • His utility companies.
  • His home and car insurance companies (car policies usually lapse on death so any named driver on his policy is probably now uninsured).
  • Any clubs, associations or trade unions he belonged to.
  • The library (for any books etc).
  • His doctor and dentist.
  • His hospital or the NHS (to return any equipment such as hearing aids or wheelchairs he may have used).
  • The Bereavement Register to remove his name from mailing lists.
  • If he was a student, his school or college and the Student Loans Company (if he had a student loan).
  • Any companies he held shares in (or the registrars looking after their share registers).
  • The Post Office (if you want to redirect his post).

Each will tell you whether they need a death certificate. Some, such as HMRC, will need his national insurance number. Some will record the death immediately, but others will send you a form to complete and return.

If he had made a Lasting Power of Attorney or Enduring Power of Attorney and you were the attorney, send the original document and a death certificate to the Office of the Public Guardian so they can amend their records.

The executors should check to see if the deceased had taken out a funeral plan. If so, you may be obliged to use particular funeral directors or to take a particular funeral ‘package’. You should also check whether they have a funeral or life insurance policy that will pay out for funeral costs, or a workplace or personal pension scheme that offers a lump sum payment towards funeral expenses.

In any case, the funeral director will give a quote which will include all the details included in the cost of the funeral so this should help you to budget.

It’s worth knowing that when a bank is notified of a customer’s death it may temporarily freeze their bank account. However, many banks are prepared to release funds to help pay for a funeral.

If you and the deceased’s relatives are all on low incomes and can’t afford to pay the cost of a funeral, then the government have what is known as “The Social Fund”, which can provide some money to go towards the costs.  However there are many qualifying criteria that must be met; you can find more information about this criteria from the Citizens Advice Bureau here.

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