What is probate?

will, probate

In England and Wales, if someone has died, their next of kin, or those named in the will, need to obtain a legal document called a grant of representation, which gives them the legal right to deal with any property, money and possessions. This is known as probate.

The process and terminology differ across the UK – see ‘Elsewhere in the UK’ below.

If they left a will

If the deceased left a valid will, this will explain where their possessions, money and property should go. You will need to locate the original will, which might be stored in the person’s home, bank or with their solicitor or legal advisor.

If there is a will, contact the executors named, who will be responsible for obtaining the grant of probate. If you are an executor yourself, you’ll need to complete a probate application form and inheritance tax form and file it with the local probate registry.

You can either do this yourself, or instruct a qualified advisor to act on your behalf.

When the grant of probate is obtained, the assets may be sold, resulting in a lump sum to go to the beneficiaries, i.e. those named in the will. Before the estate is distributed, all debts and expenses should be paid. If inheritance tax is due, this will also need to be paid.

If no will was left

If there is no will, the deceased has died ‘intestate.’ The next of kin, or if there is none, the legal advisor or person appointed by the court, will need to apply for a ‘Grant of Letters of Administration’ before the estate can be distributed. If the grant is given, they are known as ‘administrators’ of the estate.

The deceased’s spouse or civil partner will usually inherit the estate in this case. However if there is none, a set of rules known as the rules of intestacy will determine who is to benefit from the estate.

Probate fees

In England and Wales, there is usually no need to apply for probate if the estate is worth less than £5,000. There is an application fee of £155 for estates over the £5,000 threshold, with a £60 fee added if you apply yourself rather than via a solicitor.

In early 2017, there were plans to raise these fees on a sliding scale in relation to the value of the estate. These plans were put on hold prior to the 2017 General Election, but may resurface in future (for more information see Probate fees: what’s all the fuss about?).

Elsewhere in the UK

The legal document is called ‘confirmation’ in Scotland and ‘grant of probate’ in Northern Ireland and the process in each country differs slightly from that in England and Wales. You can find out more here:

The threshold in Northern Ireland is £10,000, with an application fee of £200 for estates over the threshold. An extra £50 personal application fee is charged if you apply for the grant yourself, without using a solicitor.

In Scotland, for ‘small’ estates with a gross value of (currently) £36,000 or less, executors are entitled to free assistance with obtaining confirmation from the local Sheriff Court. A fee is currently only charged for estates above £50,000, with £250 charged for estates between £50,000 and £250,000 and £500 charged for estates exceeding £250,000.