What is a grant of probate?
A grant of probate gives you the authority to administer the estate of someone who has died, which includes tidying up their affairs and distributing their assets to their heirs.
Before you're able to deal with the deceased person's assets - such as their bank accounts - you'll need to obtain legal authority to act. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland this is called a grant of probate; in Scotland it's a grant of confirmation.
- Need help with probate? Download our free checklist from Which? Legal Probate to help you through the process.
Do I need a grant of probate?
In the vast majority of cases, you'll need to obtain a grant of probate to act as the executor of someone's estate.
You may not need a grant of probate if the estate is worth less than £10,000, or if the deceased owned everything jointly with someone else, so that the ownership transferred on their death.
To find out whether you can distribute someone's estate without applying for probate, the executor will need to write to each institution, such as banks or investment brokers, informing them of the death and providing a copy of the death certificate.
Otherwise, you'll need to submit an application for probate.
If someone dies without a will, the process is called applying for letters of administration.
Find out precisely what you need to do with our downloadable probate checklist from Which? Legal Probate.
How to apply for a grant of probate
Before you file the forms applying for a grant of probate, you'll need to value the size of the estate.
Below, we explain the steps you need to take to be granted probate.
1. Register the death
First, you'll need to register the person's death. This needs to be done within five days in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and eight days in Scotland.
It's a good idea to buy extra copies of the death certificate at this stage, which should cost 50p per copy. It could be more expensive if you need to get more copies later.
2. Value the estate
You will need to go through the deceased's papers and bank statements to establish their assets and liabilities, and find records of any other accounts they hold.
For some estates, this is straightforward, but others are far more complex, with multiple investments, properties and personal belongings to consider.
You'll need to contact the following institutions:
- banks, in relation to cash assets and accounts
- lenders, including for mortgages, credit cards and any loans
- fund managers or stockbrokers
- pension providers
- the local government in relation to outstanding council tax
- the Department of Work and Pensions
- HMRC in relation to outstanding tax.
When the death is registered, you should receive an identifier for the government's Tell us Once service, which allows you to contact various government departments in one go.
For each financial institution that the deceased had an account with, you'll need to send them a certified copy of the death certificate and ask for a final statement.
Most assets will then be frozen until a grant of probate has been obtained.
Many estates include a property, which also needs to be valued.
You can value the property yourself by looking at similar comparable home sales.
But if inheritance tax (IHT) is likely to be an issue (the current threshold, or 'nil-rate band', is £325,000) a written valuation by an estate agent or surveyor will make dealing with HMRC far more straightforward if it challenges your figure as being too low.
The same applies for any other particularly valuable assets – for example, a wine collection or artworks.
Find out more: valuing a property – read our step-by-step guide to working out how much a property is worth
3. File probate forms
After assessing the size of the estate and what's included, you should be in a position to complete a probate application form. You need to apply to the Personal Application Department of the Probate Registry for this.
Once you have worked out the details of the estate, the next stage is to complete a probate application form (PA1). You can download this from the HM Courts & Tribunals Service website.
In Scotland, you send confirmation forms C1 and C5 to the Sheriff Court.
As well as supplying the right paperwork, you need to swear an executor’s oath that the details you’ve provided are correct.
This can take place at your nearest Probate Registry or a local solicitor’s office. A solicitor will charge a small fee for administering the oath, but using one may be faster than waiting for an appointment at the Registry, where opening hours are often restricted.
Unless the solicitor is named as co-executor, you are not obliged to use their probate services. You can shop around for your own probate solicitor – or opt for DIY probate.
4. File inheritance tax forms
You are also required to submit a form to HMRC to establish whether any inheritance tax needs to be paid. There are two alternative forms to complete (these are used in Scotland, too).
As well as the value of the estate at the time of death, HMRC requires details of cash gifts made by the deceased in the seven years prior to death. These can increase the value of the estate for inheritance tax purposes and need to be accounted for carefully.
If the deceased was the surviving spouse or civil partner of someone who died earlier, it is possible to apply for any unused IHT allowance from their partner to be added to their own. For some estates, this can boost the nil-rate band to £650,000.
To claim additional allowance, executors must complete form IHT 217 if the estate is below the IHT threshold, or form IHT 402 if the estate is above the threshold.
Find out more: inheritance rates and allowance – get to grips with IHT rules and how to manage them
5. Pay probate fees
The probate application fee in England and Wales is £215, regardless of the size of the estate. The fee is slightly lower (£155) if you apply through a solicitor.
In Northern Ireland fees are £220, 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.
Additional copies of the grant can be ordered for 50p each. Multiple copies are essential for the administration process, and it's normal to order at least five.
6. Pay inheritance tax
Assuming everything is in order, and HMRC accepts your valuation of the estate, there is still one hurdle left before probate can be granted: if IHT is due, this must be paid in advance.
If there are sufficient funds in one of the deceased’s bank accounts, it may be possible to arrange a direct payment to HMRC.
Most UK banks permit this on receipt of an IHT 423 form. It’s also worth noting that where the major asset of the estate is a property or shares, HMRC will accept IHT in instalments, and only require a tenth of the total in advance.
What happens next?
Once you have been granted probate, you should also consider placing a deceased estate notice in the The Gazette asking any unidentified creditors to come forward. If you don't, you may be held personally liable for any of the estate's unidentified debts.
After you have the grant of probate, you can begin administering the estate – find out what to do next in our guide to DIY probate.