How does probate work?
Being named as the executor of someone's will may seem daunting. But if you're not dealing with a complex estate, you may be able to save money by settling the process yourself.
Handling probate as an executor will involve valuing the estate, applying for a grant of probate, and undertaking the administration of the estate – where assets are gathered in, then distributed to the beneficiaries. In Scotland, this process is called Confirmation.
Whether you should consider DIY probate - or use a probate solicitor - will depend on the nature of the estate, the provisions of the will and whether you're in a position to take responsibility for the whole process.
We explain step-by-step how probate works, including:
1. Checking the will for an executor
2. Paying for the funeral
3. Obtaining a grant of probate
4. Paying inheritance tax
5. Gathering in assets
6. Advertising in the Gazette
7. Preparing the final accounts
8. Distributing the assets
Your essential probate checklist
Find out what you need to do with our downloadable probate checklist from Which? Legal.
Step-by-step guide to probate
Before beginning the probate process, first you'll need to see who's responsible for administering the estate. You'll find this in the will.
If you're named as the executor, you'll be responsible for carrying out the following steps, known as administering the estate.
In cases where you don't feel capable of doing this, you can assign a solicitor to act on your behalf, or decline the role by signing a Renunciation.
Funerals are generally held soon after someone dies, meaning they often take place before you've been able to apply for a grant of probate.
In some cases, the deceased's banks will pay out funeral expenses before you obtain the grant.
You can also ask whether the funeral director will wait for payment until probate has been granted.
Otherwise, you – or another loved one – may have to pay for the funeral up front, and then recover the money from the estate later.
You should also check the will for any requests on how the deceased wished their funeral to be conducted.
In order to obtain permission to execute the will, you need to apply for a grant of probate.
To do this, you first need to register the death, then assess the size of the estate.
Once you have worked out the scope of the estate, the next stage is to complete a probate application form and inheritance tax forms.
You'll also need to swear an executor's oath at your nearest Probate Registry, or at a local solicitor’s office if this is more convenient.
We explain everything you need to know in our step-by-step guide to grant of probate.
Remember to check:
- Have you accurately assessed the deceased's estate, including all their savings and investments?
- Has each bank given details of all accounts, including stock and share Isas?
- Are there items (such as property) that you need to get professionally valued?
Provided that everything is in order and that HMRC accepts your submission, any IHT due on the estate must now be paid.
This is a requirement of getting the grant of probate.
If there is enough money in one of the deceased’s bank accounts to cover the amount due, it should be possible to arrange a direct payment to HMRC. Most UK banks permit this on receipt of an IHT 423 form.
Where the estate assets are tied up in property or shares, HMRC will accept IHT payment in instalments, and only requires a tenth of the total due in advance.
When paying inheritance tax, remember to ask:
- Will the bank or financial institution make a direct payment?
- Is there enough in the deceased's main account to pay the IHT due?
- Can the IHT be paid in installments?
Find out more: inheritance rates and allowance – get to grips with IHT rules and how to manage them
The next stages of administering the estate involves gathering in all the assets you have identified, and distributing them as directed by the will.
Once probate has been granted, most institutions will release funds without delay. You need to send them a certified copy of the grant in order to arrange this.
The money you receive should be paid into a special executor's account, separate from your own.
When setting up the executor's account, remember to ask:
- Will the deceased's bank set me up with an executor's account?
- As an executor, will I get online access or just a cheque book?
- Does it make any difference if I use the same bank as the deceased?
- What proof of identity will the bank require for in-branch transactions?
You should also consider advertising for any unknown creditors to come forward. If you do not, then you could be held personally liable for unidentified debts.
You don't have to wait until probate has been granted to place your advertisement. As long as you have the death certificate, you can put a deceased estates notice in the Gazette, the UK's official public record.
There are three editions of the Gazette, based in London, Edinburgh and Belfast. It costs £73.20, plus VAT, and there is an option to create a PO box, so your personal address isn't made public.
We recommend placing a notice sooner rather than later - as you'll need to leave 2 months and 1 day to allow potential creditors to come forward.
If the estate includes property, you should also place a notice in a newspaper local to that property. You can submit this through the Gazette.
The next task is to prepare a set of final accounts, and ask the beneficiaries to approve these before distributing. This is to avoid potential disputes once the money has been shared out.
These estate accounts should include all money received and paid out.
You need to keep these and the supporting paperwork for at least 12 years (the limitation period for any claim against the estate).
Once you have received the funds due, you can make appropriate payments to each of the beneficiaries and creditors.
When distributing assets, remember to ask:
- Have you identified all beneficiaries and creditors?
- Have you made a good faith effort to contact all beneficiaries and creditors?
- Have you paid all estate debts and taxes?
The costs of administering probate should come out of the estate. In some cases though, the executor may need to pay upfront and be reimbursed if they do not yet have a grant of probate.
The main cost is the probate application fee, which is currently £215 in England and Wales. The fee is slightly lower (£155) if you apply through a solicitor.
The government sought to increase probate fees in 2019, but the motion lapsed when parliament was suspended.
In Northern Ireland fees are £261, and in Scotland the fee is £200. The only exemption is for estates worth less than £5,000, where the fee is waived, wherever you are in the UK - except Northern Ireland, where it's less than £10,000.
Additional copies of the grant can be ordered for £1.50 each. Multiple copies are essential for the administration process, and it's normal to order at least five.
You'll also need to pay for copies of the death certificate, which is £11 in England and Wales, £8 in Northern Ireland and £10 in Scotland. It's worth asking for multiple copies, as you may need to provide them to banks or savings providers.
If you decide to hire a solicitor, you'll also need to factor in the cost of paying their bill.
Should you hire a probate solicitor?
While many executors use solicitors to handle the entire probate process, you can undertake each stage yourself if the estate is not overly complex.
The obvious reason to go it alone is to save on cost, as using a probate solicitor can cost thousands of pounds.
However, while DIY probate can considerably reduce costs, it leaves you with a lot of paperwork and responsibility. As the executor, you can't cut any corners and are legally responsible for meeting all legitimate claims (including tax). If you fail to act correctly, you could be sued by one or more of the beneficiaries.
In some cases, you can get a solicitor to help obtain the grant of probate, then take over the estate administration yourself.
If the deceased used a bank to draw up their will, and the bank was appointed a co-executor, some banks insist on acting as a professional executor and on carrying out probate too. As banks tend to charge a percentage, this can be expensive.
You can ask the bank to renounce its executor role, if the beneficiaries agree. To find out more about charges, visit our guide to probate solicitors.
Need help with probate? Download our free checklist from Which? Legal to help you through the process.