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Applying for probate - practical guide



Sat 30 December 2023 Applying for probate - practical guide

Losing a loved one is an emotionally challenging time, often compounded by the complexities of administering their estate. This guide provides a practical overview of the probate process in England and Wales.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal and administrative procedures involved in dealing with the estate of a deceased individual. This entails:

Applying for probate generally means applying, as named executors, to the Probate Registry, for a Grant of probate, which formal legal authority and responsibility for the estate administration. Dealing with probate may also mean dealing with the Inland Revenue and completing documents to show whether any Inheritance Tax is payable or not.

With some low value estates or where the main asset is a property which is left to a co-owner, formal grant of probate may not be required (see more below)

How long does probate take?

While the average probate time frame ranges from 9 to 12 months, many factors can influence how long it takes, including estate complexity, tax considerations, and potential disputes.

The executors, who are potentially personally liable for errors, will generally take a cautious approach before finalising probate. It is sometimes possible for them to make interim distributions until probate is finalised with final estate accounts.

What are the legal duties on executor or estate administrators?

Under English law, executors and administrators of an estate hold a position of significant responsibility. They owe numerous legal and fiduciary duties to manage the estate diligently and in the best interests of the beneficiaries. Duties include :-

Executors and administrators are accountable to the beneficiaries and the court for their actions. They can be held liable for negligence, breaches of duty, or mismanaging the estate.

What forms and documents are needed for Grant of Probate?

Accurate completion of necessary forms ensures smooth progress. Key documents include:

Additional forms may be required depending on specific estate characteristics.

No will - dealing with Intestacy

When someone dies without a will in the UK, their estate is considered "intestate" and their closest living relative has the right to apply for probate to become the "administrator" of the estate. The order of priority for who can apply is as follows : -

If several people with equal entitlement exist within a category, they can apply jointly as co-administrators. If there's no one within this hierarchy, or if they are unable or unwilling to act, the estate then falls to the Crown and the Treasury Solicitor becomes responsible.

The process is broadly the same in terms of the role and duties of the administrator. The terminology is different, with the application being for Letters of Administration rather than Grant of Probate.

Form PA1A is the form to apply for Letters of Administration without a Will.

Do you always need a formal grant of probate or letters of administration?

No, you don't always have to apply for formal probate under English law. Here are some situations where formal probate might not be necessary:

Can executors or administrators pay for legal advice from the estate?

Generally speaking the answer is yes, under English law, an executor can generally pay for reasonable legal fees incurred in administering the estate from the estate itself. In some situations, obtaining legal advice is very important such as a multi-jurisdictional estate, where the estate is very large, where the will sets up a trust.

The starting point is to check whether there is a charging clause in the will specifically authorising use of and payment for legal and/or other professional fees.

If there is no charging clause, use of lawyers or others will usually be an allowable expense.

To avoid potential conflict, it is advisable, if significant fees are anticipated, to seek approval from beneficiaries in advance to avoid disputes. Fees incurred should be :-

Probate issues where a property is the main asset

In the majority of cases, a property is the main asset. Generally speaking, executors or administrators should obtain a number of independent valuations and consider all the available options.

 In most cases the beneficiaries will want the property sold as soon as possible. However, if the will is silent as to specific instructions,  a prudent executor may consider market conditions, beneficiary preferences, and any specific instructions in the Will regarding the property's future.

Probate application legal advice

Navigating probate, especially with property involved, can be complex. It's recommended for the executor to seek professional guidance from solicitors and property valuation experts to ensure all legal requirements are met, taxes are accurately calculated, and the best course of action is taken for the benefit of the estate and all beneficiaries.


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