Guide to probate

Guide to probate

How to do it yourself

It's a morbid topic, but when someone dies, if you're in charge of sorting out their property, money and other possessions, you may need to go through a process known as 'probate'. And while this can be yet another thing to deal with at a difficult time, it's something you can usually do yourself, which can save you £1,000s. This guide explains the step-by-step process to follow.

Please suggest any changes or questions in the Probate discussion.

Related: Power of AttorneyDeath Happens – Plan For ItCheap and Free Wills and What To Do When Someone Dies guides.

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What is probate?

When someone dies and leaves property, money and possessions – known as their estate – you need to sort out who gets what. To do this, you need what is known as a 'grant of representation'. This proves your authority to administer the estate. What form this takes will depend on whether a will has been left.

  • If a will has been left – the executor(s) will need to apply for a grant of probate.
  • If a will hasn't been left – the next of kin will need to apply for a grant of letters of administration.

The process of applying for the grant and the document you use to manage the estate is often generically referred to as 'probate' – for simplicity, this is the term we will use in the guide.

Probate is the same for everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but if you live in Scotland it's called 'confirmation'. For full information, see the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website.

Put simply, and in order, the executor's job and the process of dealing with probate involves:

  • Gathering any assets, for example, money left in bank accounts
  • Paying any bills
  • Distributing what's left according to the will

Does everyone need to use probate?

No. Many estates don't need to go through this process. If there's only jointly-owned property and money which passes to a spouse or civil partner when someone dies, probate will not normally be needed.

If you're not sure whether probate is necessary, seek advice from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

How long does probate take?

Provided there are no complications, it usually takes between four and eight weeks to get a grant of probate after you've submitted the application.

Once you've got it, the amount of time it takes to complete depends on the estate's complexity. An estate that includes property to sell, or multiple shares and investments, will inevitably take longer to deal with than one simply consisting of money in a bank account. Probate can take months, and in very complex cases, even years.

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How much does probate cost?

There's an upfront fee for probate, whether you decide to go it alone or appoint the help of a probate specialist.

Going through probate without any help may seem daunting, but you don't need to throw money at it to give you confidence – you could end up wasting £1,000s. Don't be scared of probate. The biggest message here is...

You don't need to waste money on a probate specialist if you're dealing with an uncomplicated estate – it's much cheaper to do it yourself.

Application fees for probate in England and Wales are £273 (as of 26 January 2022), whether you apply through a solicitor or take the DIY option. Estates worth less than £5,000 pay no fee. In Northern Ireland, the fee is £261 for estates worth more than £10,000 (no fee if less). 

Additional copies of the probate form can be ordered for £1.50 each. Multiple copies are essential for the administration process, so it's a good idea to order a few extra copies.

If you're on a low income and/or claiming certain benefits, you may be able to get a full or partial discount on the probate fee. Check your eligibility and apply online for the Help with Fees scheme, or you can download a paper form.

Probate specialist cost

If you do decide you want to pay for the help of a probate specialist, how much you pay will depend on which route you take. You can usually get this help in three main ways:

  • 1. Fixed-fee specialist

    Here the specialist charges a fee based on an estimate of the volume of work involved.

  • 2. Hourly rate probate specialist and solicitor

    These will usually charge an hourly rate or a percentage fee based on the estate's value.

    This can be anywhere between 1% and 5% of the value of the estate plus VAT – so obviously those dealing with large estates will be handing over a big wad of cash if they go down this route.

    However, this does need to be weighed up against the complexity of the estate. Someone dealing with a complicated estate may need a lot more help, and could lose money further down the line if probate isn't done correctly.

  • 3. Banks

    Your bank will probably offer a probate and estate administration service. But this can often come out more expensive than using a solicitor or specialist company.

    You could always phone for a quote, but it's probably best to steer clear of this route.

DIY probate: the 9 steps – best option for most

When we spoke to our users who have been through the probate process, those who did use a specialist for more simple estates admitted they wished they'd gone down the DIY route, while those who opted for the DIY approach said it was sometimes a complicated and time-consuming process. All seemed to agree it was a welcome distraction from their grieving and gave them something to focus on.

If you're dealing with a complicated estate, or don't feel confident sorting out probate yourself even after reading this guide, we've got a section below on how to appoint a specialist and how much it will cost you.

Most probate cases follow the same process, so below we'll start by outlining the main steps you'll go through if doing probate yourself and not enlisting the help of a specialist.

1. Register the death

You'll need a copy of the death certificate for each of the deceased's assets (eg, each bank account, credit card, mortgage etc), so before you can start probate, you'll need to register the death.

You'll usually need to do this within five days in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or eight days in Scotland – though this doesn't apply if the death's reported to the coroner.

To do this, go to the register office for the area where the death happened – use Gov.uk to find it. You may need to book an appointment, so it's worth phoning first.

  • What documents to take

    You'll need the medical certificate of the cause of death, plus a birth certificate, marriage or civil partnership certificate or NHS medical card if available. A relative will usually need to register the death, if possible, but others are allowed to do this in some circumstances.

    There's a useful Gov.uk tool to help you find exactly who can do it, and what documents are needed, for where you are in the UK. The registrar will then give you a certificate for burial or cremation, and a certificate of registration of death (more commonly known as a death certificate).

  • Report a death to all Goverment organisations in one go

    In some areas, you can use the Government's Tell Us Once service to report the death to most Government organisations in one go, including council tax, benefits, passport and driving licence info.

    Not all councils do this though – check if yours does when you're registering the death, as it'll need to give you a number to use for this. See Gov.uk.

  • Report a death to banks, building societies and other financial firms in one go

    The Death Notification Service works UK-wide and has been set up by trade association UK Finance and the major banks. It aims to make it quicker and easier for anyone who's suffered a bereavement to notify banks and building societies in one step.

    It's recommended that you create an account with the Death Notification Service, though you don't have to. Doing so ensures you get confirmation when notifications have been received by banks, building societies and other firms. Creating an account also allows you to contact more firms if you discover the deceased person had an account with them later on.

    For a full list of what firms the service covers, see the Death Notification Service website.

2. Find out if there's a will

Before you do anything else, find out if there's a will. It's a good idea to start looking for a will in the first week after the death if you can, as it may also have other instructions such as funeral plans. If you don't have a will yourself and want one, see our Cheap and free wills guide.

It's important to establish if there's a will as it says who the executor is. It also names who'll get any assets left. If the will doesn't name an executor, or the person who has been named can't take on the position for any reason, it gets more complicated.

However, there is a process to follow. Any beneficiaries of the estate – usually a close relative such as a spouse, child or parent – can apply to the probate registry to be what is known as an 'administrator' of the estate instead.

What if there isn't a will?

If no valid will has been left, the deceased has died 'intestate'. In this instance, laws known as intestacy rules govern how their estate should be distributed. Unmarried or divorced partners normally don't inherit anything under intestacy rules.

3. Sort inheritance tax

Once you know who the executor is – the person authorised to deal with the deceased's property, money and possessions – they need to apply for a document known as a 'grant'. (If there is more than one executor, only one needs to apply.) It shows you have the right to access funds, sort finances and share out assets.

  • Complete an inheritance tax form

    If the person died after 1 Jan 2022, the first step in applying for the 'grant' is to check the value of the deceased's estate (see point 8) and use the online checker tool to find out if inheritance tax (IHT) is likely to be owed.  

    If the estimated value of the estate is below the IHT threshold (£325,000), it'll be classed as an 'excepted estate' and you don't need to report this separately to HMRC - you’ll need to do it as part of your probate application.

    There won't be tax to pay if assets are being transferred to a surviving spouse (see the quick question below for more on this).

    If the estate's value is above the IHT threshold (£325,000), you can fill out form IHT400 and send it to HMRC. Be sure to wait 20 working days before applying for probate.

    A new allowance was introduced in the 2017/18 tax year that will gradually raise inheritance tax thresholds on main residences going to certain family members. It's called the residence nil rate band, see our Guide to Inheritance Tax. If this applies to you you'll need to fill in an IHT400 and an IHT435.

    If there is tax to pay, you'll need to settle this before the grant is issued to you. You have six months from the end of the month in which the person died to do so. You can defer tax and pay in instalments on some types of assets, including land, some shares and the value of any business owned (not the assets).

    If there's enough money in a bank account of the deceased to cover the amount due, it should be possible to arrange a direct payment to HMRC. Most UK banks permit this if you send an IHT423 form.

    If there isn't enough money you'll have to pay out of your own pocket (if you can) and recoup the money from the estate after probate – or take a loan from a bank. The loan can then be repaid from the estate after the grant has been issued and assets released.

    But even if the money is borrowed, an estate that consists mainly of the family home may not have enough cash or other assets to repay it. So, the family home may have to be sold or mortgaged to do so. If you've tried everything possible but still failed to raise money for the fees, you might be able to apply in 'exceptional' circumstances for help from the Lord Chancellor.

Quick questions

  • What if we were married and only had joint assets?

    If assets are being transferred to a surviving spouse or civil partner, no inheritance tax will normally be charged. For example, if the deceased and their spouse or civil partner owned a home under a joint tenancy, the surviving partner automatically inherits it (it doesn't pass as part of the will). This means the surviving spouse or civil partner can continue living there with no inheritance tax to pay.

    However, if it's a joint ownership but the owners weren't married or in a civil partnership (or covered under another exemption, see HMRC), it'll be liable for inheritance tax.

    If the deceased and the surviving joint owner each owned a portion of the property (eg, a half or a third), they're known as 'tenants in common'. In this instance, the deceased's share of the property does pass as part of their will.

    If it passes to the surviving spouse or civil partner (or is covered under another exemption, see HMRC for details), it's exempt from inheritance tax. Otherwise, it will be taxable.

    The rules around this are complex, so see HMRC for help. Our Inheritance Tax guide also has useful info on how the system works.

  • Can I stop a grant if needed?

    You may be in the situation where you need to stop a grant from going ahead, for example if there's a dispute over whether a will exists – this is called a 'caveat'. To get a caveat, you'll need to be over 18 and write to or visit any probate registry – it costs £20 and once issued lasts six months.

  • What bank account do I use when funds are released?

    It's a good idea to open a special bank account on behalf of the estate straight away so you can pay money into it as funds are released.

    The bank and other institutions can then transfer money from the deceased's bank account into the account you've set up as an executor once the grant has been issued.

4. Apply for probate

You'll need to complete a probate application - this can be done online or by completing a paper form. 

You can use the online service if the person who died lived in England or Wales most of the time and you’re the executor or administrator and you:

The £273 (£261 in Northern Ireland) probate fee is paid as part of the online application. When you have completed the online application, you'll need to send the original will and any supporting documents to:

HMCTS Probate
PO Box 12625
Harlow
CM20 9QE

It's advised to use a signed-for or tracked postal service that will deliver to PO boxes to send these.

Completing a paper probate application form

If there’s a will, you'll need to fill in form PA1P. If there’s not a will, fill in form PA1A. You can do this yourself or you can call the probate and inheritance tax helpline for help completing the form.

Send to the same address as above and include:

  • Probate application form PA1P or PA1A
  • The original will, if completing form PA1P
  • Completed inheritance tax form(s): IHT205 or IHT207, and IHT217, if applicable
  • The application fee – a cheque for £273 made payable to HM Courts & Tribunals Service
  • Any supporting documents as prompted on the form.

If you're applying from Northern Ireland, you can also apply online or download the paper forms:

and post to:

The Probate Office, Royal Courts of Justice
Chichester Street
Belfast
BT1 3JF
United Kingdom

5. Tell all organisations and close accounts

You'll need to tell every organisation you can think of that the deceased had a relationship with, including Government bodies and financial and utility companies. This makes sure you fulfil your responsibilities, get back money owed and ensure no more charges are taken.

Where to check. Go through all paperwork, internet bookmarks and files to find who they had accounts with. They may have had their own financial factsheet with details that'll help, so check with next-of-kin.

If you can't find all the deceased's bank, building society or savings accounts, website My Lost Account can find out where they held an account, though it can take up to three months to trace. There are also sites that can help you trace lost pensions and investments too. See our Reclaim Forgotten Cash guide for a full how-to.

Warning. If you've a second credit card... on the deceased's account, it'll be frozen once you've told the bank. If you rely on that card, ask for an account in your name, or see Best Cards for Spending for top deals. If you had a joint account, however, you'll be able to get in contact with the bank and change the account solely into your name.

We've put together a list of some of the main organisations to contact. They won't all apply to everyone, but they'll help you make a start:

  • Financial organisations to contact

    • Bank or building society – to close accounts and retrieve money, pay debts if necessary, or cancel standing orders and direct debits. They'll also be able to transfer any joint accounts solely into your name.

    • Savings providers – to close accounts and retrieve money. Look on a recent statement for contact details, or try googling the provider's name.

      It's worth noting we've heard banks may move the deceased's savings over to an account with a lower interest rate after they've been told of the account holder's death. So check this directly with the bank as soon as you can.

    • Mortgage or loan provider, credit card or store card companies – to close accounts and pay any debts if necessary.

    • Insurance companies – to claim on any life insurance or payment protection insurance (PPI), or to cancel any existing policies such as home, car, travel or medical insurance. If you're a surviving spouse and still need the home insurance but it was in your partner's name, you can phone and get the policy changed to your name. For help reclaiming loan PPI, see our Reclaim PPI for Free guide.

    • Pension companies – to claim any payments and close the accounts. Look on a recent statement for contact details, or try googling the name of the company.

    • Student Loans Company – to get a student loan cancelled. Repayments cease when someone dies. See the Student Loans Company website for contact details.

    • Any other company the deceased had a rental, hire purchase or loan with – to close accounts and clear debts, if necessary. Again, look on a statement for contact details.
  • Utility companies and others to contact

    • Utility companies (gas, electricity, water) – to close accounts and settle bills, if necessary, or to reclaim money that's owed. Look on a recent bill for contact details. The Consumer Council for Water also lists water companies in England and Wales. If you're the surviving spouse and are still living in the home, you'll just need to make sure the bills are now in your name.

      The process above can also be followed for mobile, home phone, broadband and digital TV firms – for contact details, try looking at bills or googling company names.

    • Landlord or local authority if they rented a property – to stop rent payments being taken, and possibly reclaim the deposit. See Gov.uk to find contact details for your local authority.

    • Royal Mail – if any post needs redirecting. See Royal Mail and scroll down to the 'special circumstances application form', written in red text and available to download.

    • The deceased's employer – it's worth informing their employer immediately for compassionate reasons, but it's also worth a call as the deceased may have had death-in-service or other insurance linked to their work, which you may be able to claim on.

    • Healthcare providers, organisations or clubs such as their dentist, optician, any social clubs, trade unions and their church or place of worship – to cancel any memberships, collect funds owed or settle outstanding payments.

    • Reduce the amount of junk mail sent to the deceased – see the Bereavement Register and Deceased Preference Service websites for contact details. To stop baby-related mail, register with MPS Baby where companies are advised how your circumstances have changed as well as your preference not to receive further mailings about baby products and services.

    • Email providers/social media – charity Young Lives vs Cancer has information on how to ask each provider to close an email account down. And each social media platform has a process you can go through to delete an account or make one inactive.

Quick question

  • Do I have to apply for probate to be able to access money left in bank accounts?

    Banks will usually release money up to a certain amount without requiring a Grant of Probate, but each financial institution has its own limit that determines whether or not probate is needed. We've created the table below to show the current limits for the major financial companies in the UK.

    Thresholds when probate is required by financial organisation

    Financial organisation Maximum you can withdraw without probate

    Financial 

    organisation

    Maximum you can withdraw without probate

    Aviva

    £50,000

    Nationwide

    £50,000

    Axa

    £10,000

    NatWest

    £25,000

    Bank of Ireland

    £10,000

    NS&I

    £5,000

    Bank of Scotland

    £50,000

    Post Office

    £10,000

    Barclays

    £50,000

    Royal Bank of Scotland

    £25,000

    Birmingham Midshires

    £25,000

    Sainsbury's Bank

    £20,000

    Britannia

    £30,000

    Santander

    £50,000

    Cheltenham & Gloucester

    £25,000

    Skipton Building Society

    £15,000

    Co-op Bank

    £30,000

    Tesco Bank

    £25,000

    First Direct

    Decided on a case-by-case basis

    TSB

    £50,000

    Halifax

    £50,000

    Virgin Money

    £35,000

    HSBC

    Decided on a case-by-case basis

    Woolwich

    £15,000

    Lloyds TSB

    £50,000

    Yorkshire Building Society

    £30,000

    M&S Money

    £15,000

       

6. Pay off any debts

Debts will normally need to be paid, but only if the deceased had money left. This includes mortgages, loans, credit and store cards, hire purchase agreements and any other commercial debt – excluding student loans.

  • Are oustanding debts passed to the family?

    Importantly, only the deceased's estate is liable for any debts – not their family. If there's only enough to pay some debts, these generally need to be prioritised in this order: secured debts (such as mortgage), funeral costs, then other debts (including taxes).

    We've simplified this to give you an idea, but the order of payment required under law is complex. There are rules on how much everyone should get if there isn't enough to pay all of these. Contact Citizens Advice for help. 

  • Make the effort to find other beneficiaries

    If there is estate left to share out, it could be worth advertising this in The Gazette (the official public record for notices such as these) and the local newspaper covering the area (particularly if it's a property). Notices cost about £70, but can be claimed back from the estate.

    Under the Trustee Act 1925, placing the advertisement means the executor would not be liable if someone came forward later that the executor did not know about at the time of the notice. You must wait at least two months and one day from the date of the advertisement before sharing out the estate. 

  • Debt in joint names

    The debt will now be the sole responsibility of the surviving person. If you're concerned about the impact this may have, contact Citizens Advice. See our Debt help guide for where to get free one-on-one debt-counselling help.

  • Check for insurance

    This is well worth investigating in case debts are covered by the deceased's life insurance or PPI. 

  • Mortgages must be paid

    This applies even if there's no insurance. In the worst case, you may have to sell the property, but if you're in trouble, contact the lender to discuss options. Also talk to a solicitor or Citizens Advice, and see our Debt help guide for info on free debt-counselling help.

Reach an agreement with creditors to avoid future problems

If all the deceased's assets pass to their surviving partner there may be no money left in the estate to pay any debts, which could mean they're written off.

However, creditors can apply for an 'insolvency administration order' within five years of the death. This can legally divide any property or assets that automatically pass to a surviving partner, and force a sale.

So first try to come to an agreement with lenders, and try to pay them yourself if absolutely necessary. This is a complex issue, so you may need to discuss it with Citizens Advice.

7. Claim on any life insurance plans

Life insurance usually pays a lump sum to the spouse or family after the insured person dies. So if the deceased had a life insurance or mortgage life insurance plan, call the provider to let it know they've passed away, and to start the claims process.

If you've any info on the policy, make sure it's to hand when you call, as the policy number and details will help speed up the process. The provider will then let you know what paperwork's needed formally to put in the claim.

If you don't have the policy details, don't worry. The provider should be able to trace details of the plan through the policyholder's name, date of birth and address. It'll also need to see the death certificate to validate the claim, so be prepared to send this.

How long it'll take to come through depends on the circumstances. As a rough guide, it can be anything from a week to several months if the insurance company feels it needs to investigate further.

If you write a life insurance policy in trust, the proceeds from the policy can be paid directly to the beneficiaries rather than to your legal estate, and therefore won't be taken into account when inheritance tax (IHT) is calculated.

This is because a trust works in a similar way to an ISA wrapper – it wraps itself around whatever you have in it (eg, a life insurance policy) and protects it from the taxman, meaning they can't take any tax from money you have in there, or make the money count towards your IHT allowance. It also means it's likely the money will be available sooner than if you had to go through probate to get it. For help with the claims process, see the Association of British Insurers.

8. Value the estate

  • Money held in financial institutions.
  • Property and land.
  • Businesses.
  • Investments – stocks, shares, ISAs etc.
  • Personal items – eg, jewellery, musical instruments, stamp collections, cars etc.
  • Contents of home.
  • Money payable on death from a pension (excluding ongoing pension payments to a surviving partner).
  • Life insurance payments paid on death, although as above, tax will not be due on policies held in trust.
  • Loans made by the deceased to another person.
  • Certain types of trust from which the deceased benefited (consider getting professional advice on this).
  • An alternatively secured pension fund from which the deceased benefited.

Bank accounts can be added up easily, but property may need a proper valuation to work out what it's worth (see Free house price valuations on how to value a property). Insurance payouts after death may count as part of the estate, depending on the policy, so factor this in.

Gifts given by the deceased within seven years of their death may need to be taken into account, as well as assets they had an interest in (for example, if they gave property to their kids but lived in it rent-free). See Gov.uk for more on how to value someone's estate.

9. Share out the remaining assets

Once you've gone through all these steps, you'll be pleased to hear there's only one big financial task left to tackle – to share out what's left of the estate.

Here, whatever's left once all debts and taxes are paid needs to be distributed. If there's a will, this should be simple as it should state where any remaining assets go.

What if there's no will?

If there isn't a will, the assets are distributed under the 'rules of intestacy' (though the beneficiaries can agree among themselves to redistribute it as they wish).

Generally these mean that if the deceased was married or in a civil partnership with an estate worth £250,000 or less, everything goes to the husband, wife or civil partner (this is known as 'succession' in Scotland and different rules apply – see the Scottish Government website).

There's a complex set of rules around this depending on the surviving relatives, the amount involved and which part of the UK you're in.

Unmarried partners won't automatically get a share

If you weren't married or in a civil partnership, sadly you won't automatically get a share of the estate. But if the person who's died hasn't left you anything in their will, you've the option to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 in England and Wales.

Other dependants may also be able to claim under this too. See Gov.uk to apply. It's worth seeking legal help if you want to do this, or if any family disputes arise – see Citizens Advice for help.

MoneySavers' top tips

Tips from our users who've been through probate…

  • Be organised! Lots of MoneySavers got in touch to say before you do anything, go out and buy a notebook and folders to keep track of everything methodically. You know how you work best, but preparation is key.

  • Get extra copies of the death certificate. By far the most repeated advice. The death certificate is an official copy of what's on the death register, often needed as proof by companies and financial institutions such as banks and insurance firms.

    These are now £11 up from £4 in England and Wales, £8 in Northern Ireland and £12 in Scotland. This goes up if you want more copies at a later date, so it's worth buying as many copies as you'll need to avoid paying extra down the line – typically you'll need about five.

Quick question

  • Is there any extra help I can get with financial decisions?

    There are several crucial, difficult financial decisions to make after the death of a loved one. Yet it's an emotional time, so don't make snap judgements – wait until you have a clear head. Remember, you're not alone. Several places offer extra help. If you have a solicitor, use them to help you with big financial decisions.

    Otherwise, get help from a friend or relative in the know, or contact Citizens Advice. Dedicated grief counselling's also available if you need extra emotional support – see our What to do when someone dies guide for more help.

    If you're struggling to cope with it all, don't suffer in silence. Gov.uk has a list of organisations that can help, including charities Samaritans and Cruse Bereavement Care.

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Appointing a probate specialist

We've outlined the steps you need to go through if you're happy to go it alone in the section above. If you feel you want to use a specialist, or are dealing with a particularly complicated estate, here are some tips on finding and appointing a probate specialist.

A probate specialist might be a solicitor or accountant, but one thing you can be sure of is they'll charge a fee.

You might want to think about using a probate specialist if:

  • The value of the estate is over the inheritance tax threshold and the estate is still earning a regular income where there are complicated taxes due. The standard individual inheritance tax-free threshold is £325,000. An additional main residence allowance was introduced in 2017/18, gradually raising the tax threshold for many estates until 2020. For more details, refer to our Inheritance tax guide.
  • The deceased died without a will, and it's a complicated estate to administer.
  • There are doubts about the validity of the will.
  • The deceased had dependants who were deliberately left out of the will, but who might want to make a claim on the estate.
  • The estate has complex arrangements, such as assets held in a trust.
  • The estate is bankrupt (also known as insolvent).
  • There are doubts that the estate is bankrupt.
  • The estate includes foreign property or assets.
  • The deceased lived outside the UK for tax purposes.

For anything other than this, follow the eight DIY steps above to see if you can go it alone and save some money in the process.

How to find a probate provider?

You can search The Law Society for solicitors in England and Wales who deal with probate. Just use the Quick Search tool and select 'Wills, trusts and probate' to find a solicitor or firm near you. If you live in Scotland, you can use the Scottish solicitors directory, and for Northern Ireland residents, use the Northern Ireland solicitors directory.

Alternatively, if you opt for an accountant rather than a solicitor, you can use the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) database to find an accredited probate accountancy firm. The ICAEW is an independent regulator that accredits firms to provide probate services to their clients. It's worth noting that the ICAEW's accredited providers are only allowed to deal with non-contentious probate in England and Wales. A service is treated as contentious when it becomes likely that an application will be made to court.

How are probate providers regulated?

Administration of estates is not a regulated activity in England and Wales. However, solicitors and accountancy firms are regulated.

Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors' Regulation Authority or SRA (in England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own regulators). If you have problems, you can complain to the solicitors' firm and, if it's not resolved, you can go to the free Legal Ombudsman service for redress.

Solicitors are also required to have indemnity insurance for when things go wrong, including six years of additional ('run-off') cover if their firm closes, while the SRA's Solicitors' Indemnity Fund offers £1 million of further cover.

What happens if something goes wrong with the probate process?

Probate negligence. This is when a probate specialist fails to follow correct procedures, misses legal deadlines, or gives incorrect tax or legal advice to a client that results in financial loss.

Making a probate negligence claim. If an executor, administrator or beneficiary loses out as a direct result of an error or mistake by a probate solicitor, they can make a probate negligence claim for compensation. In the first instance, it's best to first try to resolve the issue informally with your probate provider, perhaps through the solicitor's complaints procedure.

If that doesn't work, and your claim is for less than £10,000, you could take it to the Small claims court. If the financial loss is more than £10,000, you'll need to appoint a solicitor to help to recover legal costs and get you compensation.

A probate negligence claim must be made within six years of the negligence, or within three years of when you first became aware that some form of negligence occurred.

Probate in Scotland is called ‘confirmation’

The process of applying for probate in Scotland is known as ‘confirmation’ and is a very different process to the rest of the UK.

In the UK an executor has the right to look after the estate of the deceased without actually having the assets transferred to them. Whereas in Scotland, confirmation is a legal document that effectively transfers the estate assets to the executors so they can deal with them, as per the terms of the will. There can be any number of executors involved in obtaining confirmation, though they must be aged 16 or older

When you need confirmation

You’ll need confirmation if the deceased left more than £5,000 and any property was not jointly owned. The estate is valued before any debts are paid - including funeral expenses and the balance of the mortgage - which is different to the rest of the UK, where estates are valued after debts have been deducted.

If you are dealing with an estate worth more than £5,000 the route you need to take when applying for confirmation will depend on whether there’s a will and where the estate is considered small or large

How to apply for confirmation

When applying for confirmation, the executors must include a list of all the deceased’s assets and their value (as at the date of death). This is known as an ‘inventory’ and it’ll be publicly available if confirmation is granted.

Fees for applying for confirmation in Scotland

Estate value

Fee

Under £50,000

£0

£50,000 to £250,000

£266

Over £250,000

£532

When there’s a will

If the deceased left a will, you can apply for confirmation. The value of the estate will determine who helps you apply:

  • If the estate is worth less than £36,000, it’s considered small and you can get free help from your sheriff’s office. The sheriff clerk will be able to help you prepare the ‘inventory’, and you can contact your local sheriff court to arrange an appointment.

  • If the estate is worth more than £36,000, it’s considered a large estate and you should seek legal advice.

When there’s no will

In the rest of the UK, if there’s no will, you need to apply for letters of administration. In Scotland, the process is different, and again, it depends on whether the estate is large (over £36,000) or small (under £36,000):

  • If the estate’s worth more than £36,000, you’ll need to get a bond of caution - an insurance against someone applying for confirmation when they’re not entitled to do so, and it protects against an executor failing to distribute the estate according to law.
    There is currently only one company authorised to provide Bonds of Caution - Royal and Sun Alliance Insurance. The Bond of Caution will only be provided by the insurance companies if a firm of solicitors is instructed to administer and wind up the estate. The fee is based upon the gross value of the estate. The minimum fee charged by the insurance companies is around £250.

  • When the estate’s worth less than £36,000, you’ll only need a bond of caution if you didn’t get the sheriff clerk to help you prepare the inventory.

Distributing the estate assets

Once confirmation has been granted, the executor must wait six months from the date of death before distributing any of the estate to those entitled to it. This is to allow persons or companies with a claim on the estate to make their claim known.

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