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What to do when someone dies with a will

Handling a loved one’s will after they’ve passed away can feel complex, especially when you’re already dealing with an emotional stage in your life. This guide will explain what happens when someone dies with a will and how the probate process works.

Before dealing with the estate of someone who has left a will, it can be useful to understand some basic terms:

  • The beneficiary of a will – someone who receives an inheritance from their loved one through a will
  • The executor of the will – someone named in a will as the person who is allowed to deal with the estate
  • The estate – any properties, financial assets or belongings that the deceased has left behind
  • Intestacy – when someone dies without a will

How do I find someone’s will after their death?

The first thing you’ll need to do is find out whether your loved one has left a will. In many cases, when people have taken the time to write a will, they will have told those around them how to find it.

However, if you’re unsure how to locate the will, you should check:

  • at their home
  • with their bank
  • with their solicitor or accountant
  • the Principal Registry of the Family Division – they will send a certificate of deposit, so you will need to look for this.

What happens if I can’t find the will?

If you can't find a will, you will usually have to deal with the estate as if there was no will.

What happens if I find more than one will?

If you find multiple wills, only the most recent one will be accepted as valid. Don’t destroy any earlier versions though, it is important to keep these on file, at least until you get probate.

How long after death is a will read?

Despite what films and TV suggest, there isn’t usually a formal ‘reading of the will’. The will is managed by the executor, who will decide whether to share copies of it with other people.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process of administering the estate of the person who has died. This includes organising their money, assets and possessions, paying taxes and debts and distributing any inheritance.

If there is a will, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you will apply for ‘Grant of probate’. This is also known as a ‘Grant of representation’. In Scotland, this is called ‘confirmation’. If the deceased left a will and named an executor (the person nominated to deal with the estate), that person will need to get what is known as a 'grant of probate' - this is the legal document used to manage the estate.

How do I know if probate is required?

If the estate doesn’t include land or property, the person’s finances were below a certain threshold, or the estate was held with a surviving spouse, then probate might not be needed. If you’re unsure, our dedicated probate advisors are here to help. Alternatively, please get in touch with HMRC.

How do I apply for probate?

First, you’ll need to check if you can apply. The person who applies will need to have been named in the will as an executor. If more than one person is named as an executor, you must all agree which person should complete the application for probate. If you are named as the executor but do not want to apply, or are unable to do so, you must contact your local probate office.

You can apply for probate yourself, or you can appoint a solicitor to do it on your behalf. You’ll need the will and death certificate to apply and will also need to have estimated the value of the estate and reported it to HMRC.

How do I value the estate?

You’ll need to calculate an estimate of all the person’s assets, including all payments, gifts, debts, and joint assets. Then report the value of the estate to HMRC. When you do this, make sure you exclude any debts in the value total, you will need to make HMRC aware of them.

How long does probate take if there is a will?

This process can take many months, especially for more complicated estates. Deadlines apply if there is inheritance tax to pay on the estate.

How do I know if I need to pay inheritance tax?

Valuing the estate is an important step to establishing whether there is inheritance tax to pay.

Inheritance tax won’t be payable if the estate’s value is below the threshold of £325,000, or if the value passes to the person’s spouse, charity or a community sports club.

If the estate exceeds the £325,000 inheritance tax threshold, then inheritance will likely need to be paid on the value of any assets that exceed the threshold. Contact the inheritance tax and probate helpline for advice on tax reliefs, exemptions and rules.

What do I do once I have applied for probate?

Once you have probate, you are legally able to contact organisations such as the bank or private pension provider and ask them to release assets. You can then pay the various debts (if any) and the taxes due. If the assets include property or shares, you might need to sell this in order to pay off the debts and taxes and distribute the assets to the beneficiaries.

Distribute the estate in line with the will

After you’ve paid the debts and taxes, you can distribute the estate as the deceased wanted in their will. The executor will need to collect any assets identified in the will and distribute to the correct beneficiaries. In the will, the deceased will have stated who they want to receive which of their assets. A record of how the estate is split must be kept, so everyone is aware of how each of the property or properties, monies and belongings have been distributed.

Can you contest a will after probate?

It is possible to contest a will after probate has been granted. However, it is important to act as quickly as possible if you think you may have grounds for contesting a will. Practical difficulties are likely to arise if assets have already been distributed.

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