What is Probate?

If you’re named executor in a will, you’ll need a grant of probate to deal with the deceased person’s affairs. But what is probate, and how do you apply for it?

Probate formsAsk most people the question “What is probate?”, and they’ll probably tell you that it’s something to do with leaving a will.

That’s true up to a point, but probate actually has a very specific meaning – it’s the right granted to a person named in a will (an ‘executor’) to deal with a deceased person’s affairs.

A ‘grant of probate’ is a document that shows the executor is legally able to deal with a deceased person’s property, money and possessions.

This allows them to obtain and share out a person’s assets in the way set out in their will.

Let’s take an example. William Shakespeare’s will is famous for leaving his wife, Anne, “my second best bed with the furniture” – but it also contained lots of other instructions, such leaving property, silver, money, leases and much more to various friends and relatives.

For Shakespeare’s wishes to be carried out, his executors – daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall – would have needed to be granted probate first.

It sounds simple, but you don’t always need a grant of probate when a person dies – even if they do leave a will. The situation is even more complex if the person doesn’t leave a will.

So, to help you navigate the maze of wills and probate forms, we’ve compiled this simple guide to set you on the right track.

What if someone dies without a will?

When this happens, a relative can apply to the probate registry to be granted powers to deal with their estate.

If successful, they are given a ‘grant of letters of administration’, which – like probate – all a person to access the deceased person’s funds and assets.

When is a grant of probate needed?

As a general rule of thumb, a grant of probate or grant of letter of administration is always needed when a deceased person leaves any of the following:

  • stocks or shares
  • property or land, held in their own name or as joint owner (‘tenant in common’)
  • certain insurance policies.

In these cases, the relevant banks or institutions will only transfer control of assets to an executor if they have a grant of probate or letters of administration.

When is a grant not needed?

Probate or letters of administration may not be needed if the deceased person left less than £5,000 or their whole estate passes automatically to a surviving joint owner.

However, the executor or administrator would still need to write to each relevant bank and institution informing them of the death and enclosing the death certificate. Normally that will allow them to obtain the assets, but sometimes a grant of probate or letters of administration will still be needed.

How do I apply for probate?

If you are one of a number of executors, it’s normal for one to apply for a grant of probate and sort out the provisions of the will – but up to four can apply jointly and act together.

Many people ask a solicitor to apply for the grant on their behalf – and that’s by far the easiest way to do it.

However, you can apply yourself, but the forms you need to fill in depend on which UK country you live in and whether you expect to pay Inheritance Tax on the estate. A full summary is available on the Directgov website.

What about inheritance tax?

If Inheritance Tax is due on the estate, you won’t be granted probate until some or all of it has been paid. If the estate is affected by Inheritance Tax issues, we strongly recommend you consult a solicitor.

I’ve been named executor by someone who is no longer able to cope with their affairs. Can I manage them on their behalf?

If someone has made a will, but then becomes unable to cope with their affairs – whether through illness, accident or old age, their executors have no power over their estate until after they have died.

However, a person who is still able to cope can apply for a Lasting Power of Attorney – there are two types which allow them to name people who will have authority to handle their financial affairs and future care if they become unable to cope.

Hopefully this article will have given you a broad overview about probate, wills and related matters. In future pieces we’ll be getting into more detail about making wills, applying for probate and fulfilling your role as executor efficiently.

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