Many of us can imagine the emotional strain of losing a loved one, but generally it’s not just their grief that bereaved families have to deal with.

There are also important practical concerns that families have to address. These can include:

  • Being able to pay for living expenses
  • Ensuring all administrative responsibilities have been met
  • Organising and paying for the funeral
  • Securing and valuing the property of the person who has died
  • Administering the Will, if there is one
  • Understanding Intestacy laws, if there is no Will

Many families find financial practicalities particularly difficult to deal with.

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What happens to someone’s bank accounts when they die?

When someone dies, there are legal processes to follow concerning what happens to their assets. This includes their bank accounts and any money in them. A representative needs to contact the relevant banks or building societies in order to inform them of the death. This will usually be done by the executors appointed in the Will. If there isn’t a valid Will, this role should be carried out by someone who is entitled to act as an administrator, as per the Intestacy rules.

The executor or administrator will need to show a copy of the death certificate to any relevant banks. The banks will then freeze the accounts until a Grant of Probate has been awarded.

It’s important to notify any relevant financial institutions as soon as possible after a death. Failing to do this, or continuing to use the person’s bank card to make payments or withdrawals, is illegal.

What happens to joint accounts?

The only bank accounts that will not be frozen on an individual’s death are those that are held in joint names.

Ownership of joint accounts and any money within them will generally revert to the other named individuals on the account. For example, if one spouse were to die, the other spouse would still be able to legally access all money in their shared joint account. This money would not be frozen.

How can you legally access money from a dead person’s account?

Some banks or building societies will allow the executors or administrators to access the account of someone who has died without a Grant of Probate. This is usually when the amount of money in the account is below a certain threshold (usually £15,000-25,000).

However, in many cases the only way to legally access money belonging to an estate is to administer that estate and apply for a Grant of Probate. This process is referred to as probate.

This process will need to be carried out by either the executor(s) if there is a valid Will, or an administrator if there isn’t. Both executors and administrators are able to get probate advice from a solicitor to help them navigate the process.

Once a Grant of Probate has been awarded, the executor or administrator will be able to take this document to any banks where the person who has died held an account. They will then be given permission to withdraw any money from the accounts and distribute it as per instructions in the Will. If there is no Will, money will need to be distributed according to the Intestacy Laws.

How long does this process take?

How long the process of administering an estate and applying for Probate will take depends on a number of factors. This includes:

  • How complex the estate is
  • How quickly a death certificate can be released
  • Whether or not a valid Will can be found
  • Who has been appointed as an executor and how efficiently they are able to work
  • Whether they plan to administer the estate themselves or with a specialist probate solicitor
  • Whether the rules of Intestacy need to be applied
  • Whether there are any challenges or disputes to the Will
  • Whether there are any delays in processing probate applications (e.g. during the Covid-19 pandemic probate applications are taking longer than usual to process).

On average, the whole process takes between six and twelve months to complete. However, this could be much quicker in the case of a very straight-forward estate, or much longer in the case of a very complicated one.

Need further advice?

If you’re concerned about how long it will take to access the bank account of someone who has died and the implications of this, we recommend that you seek specific legal advice on this. Get in touch and we’ll do our best to help.

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