Applying for probate: a step-by-step guide from Which?

calculator and paperworkBeing an executor of a deceased person’s estate can be a daunting prospect. Here’s a Which? guide to what you need to consider.

If you’ve been named as executor in someone’s will, you’ll most likely have to apply for a grant of probate to be able to begin dealing with their estate.

If there is no will, the task of dealing with the estate usually falls to the person’s closest relative, who becomes known as an administrator. If that’s you, you’ll need to apply for a different grant, known as letters of administration.

Before applying for either type of grant, you’ll need to gather information about the estate and send it to the Probate Registry. You can either do this yourself or hire a solicitor to do it on your behalf.

Work out whether a grant of probate is needed

The first step is to work out whether you actually need a grant of probate or letters of administration. If the total value of the deceased person’s estate is less than £15,000, or if all of their assets were owned jointly and are passing automatically to a surviving spouse or civil partner, probate may not be needed.

If you’re in any doubt about this, you should seek advice from HMRC and/or a probate solicitor.

Value the estate

If a grant of probate is required, the next step is to value the estate. You should go through the deceased person’s paperwork to work out the total value of the estate, accounting for any liabilities, such as debts to be settled or inheritance tax payable.

You’ll need to send a certified copy of the death certificate and a copy of the will (if there is one) to any institutions holding some or all of the deceased person’s assets and request a final statement from each of them.

The estate valuation should include:

  • assets – property, belongings or money in bank accounts (including joint accounts), pensions or trusts
  • gifts – assets given away by the deceased in the seven years before they died
  • debts and liabilities – mortgages, loans, credit cards, unpaid bills, uncashed cheques and funeral expenses

The amount of work involved in the valuation will vary, depending on the estate’s size and complexity. It’s important to get this right, as it will determine whether or not inheritance tax (IHT) is due on the estate.

It’s worth asking an estate agent or property specialist to give you a written valuation for any property included in the estate, and asking a professional valuer to give you a price for items worth more than £500.

Work out whether inheritance tax is due

Inheritance tax (IHT) will usually be due if the value of the estate exceeds the threshold (the nil rate band), which is currently £325,000, unless an exemption applies (eg assets passing to a spouse or to charity are exempt from IHT). 

If the deceased was the surviving spouse or civil partner of someone who died before them, the IHT threshold can sometimes be raised to include the spouse/partner’s unused allowance. If this is the case, you can claim any unused IHT allowance on a pro-rata basis.

Complete probate forms

Once you’ve valued the estate and worked out whether inheritance tax is payable, you’ll need to fill in a number of forms to send to the Probate Registry.

The probate application (PA1) form can be downloaded from the HM Courts and Tribunals website and is used to collect details about the deceased person and their estate. You should use this to provide a record of all of the assets included in the estate and their value. In Scotland, you should complete forms C1 and C5 and send them to the Sheriff Court.

You’ll also need to complete the relevant inheritance tax forms. If the value of the estate is below the threshold (currently £325,000) and no inheritance tax is due, you should complete an IHT 205 form. If inheritance tax is due, you’ll need to complete the longer IHT 400 form.

If you’re claiming additional IHT allowance from the deceased spouse or civil partner of the person whose estate you’re handling, you’ll need to fill in form IHT 217 for estates falling below the IHT threshold or form IHT 402 for those above it.

Send your application and swear an oath

When you’ve completed the relevant forms, you should send them to the Probate Registry, together with the original will, death certificate and a cheque or postal order for your probate fee.

You’ll also need to swear an oath confirming that the information you’ve provided is correct to the best of your knowledge. The Probate Registry will send you the oath and instructions on how to arrange an appointment. The oath can be sworn at your nearest Probate Registry or a solicitor’s office.

Once this has been done, it usually takes around 10 days for the grant to arrive through the post, assuming there are no problems with the application.

About the author

Which? is the largest consumer body in the UK. Which? Legal Probate can advise on the entire probate process, with detailed, independent, expert guidance and one-to-one support from experienced probate specialists. See also: What is probate?.

See also: After probate: placing a deceased estates notice