Will and testament
Most people as they get older will prepare a will, a document declaring all property, money and assets, and describing how these should be dispersed when the holder dies. This will typically be witnessed and signed, and often produced with help from a lawyer, though there are inexpensive mail order options, too.
If a will exists, it will name a person or persons as the executor or administrator, which means they are responsible for seeing the wishes of the deceased get carried out. An executor usually must apply for legal authority to manage the estate. This is called probate. In most cases it is against the law for someone to start sharing out the estate or for beneficiaries to get money from the estate unless legal permission – either probate or letters of administration – is granted first.
If someone close to you has died and you think you might be a beneficiary, try to find out who the executor of that person's will is. It is likely to be a spouse, family member or lawyer. They will be able to give you information about who is named in the will and keep you informed about the process, which can be a long one.
The executor or administrator has various duties to proceed with until it comes time to share out the estate. That includes finding all financial documentation and sending the death certificate to organisations holding the money of the deceased. They have to open a bank account on behalf of the estate, find out details of money owed to or by the deceased, and prepare a detailed list of all assets. They pay the right amount of inheritance tax, and send the right documents to the probate registry and the tax office. Then, they collect all the money, pay any debts, expenses or fees, and only then can they share out the estate to the beneficiaries.
If someone dies without leaving a will, that situation is called intestacy. In that case, it might be necessary to appoint an administrator. An administrator would also usually be appointed if the named executors are unwilling to act. An administrator has to apply for letters of administration before they can deal with an estate. In the case of intestacy, the law decides who inherits the estate. Usually that will be a living spouse or partner, or next of kin.
The executor might not need probate or letters of administration if the estate is small, there is not enough money to pay the debts, taxes and expenses, it includes property such as a house, or in certain other situations. Additionally, if the deceased person's estate was jointly owned with another person (usually the spouse), then the whole estate is transferred to that person.
Get a copy
You can get a copy of the will once it has been granted probate. Search for it by applying to the Probate Service. There are various probate registries around the country, including the Principal Probate Registry in London. Find your nearest one and consult with them to find out if you need an appointment. See the link below for more information.
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