Understanding the Probate Timeline

The term ‘probate’ is often used to refer to the period of winding up someone’s estate after their death. However, ‘probate’ can more specifically mean a document issued by the Probate Office. There’s a lot more detail about what probate is and how the terms are used here. In this post, we’re using the term ‘probate’ more generally to refer to the entire period of administering an estate. 

There are various stages of the probate process, and if you’ve found yourself in the position of having to navigate this, you might not be sure where to start. We hope the timeline below will give you a better idea of what to expect.

Of course, every estate is different. This means that it’s not possible to provide a definitive guide to how long each stage of the process will take or everything it might involve. Some small, straight-forward estates may be able to be dealt with completely within a couple of months, while more complex estates can take a year or more to wind up.

Register the death

The first stage in the probate timeline is to register the death. This is usually a fairly straightforward process that can be started by contacting your local register office. You can register a death with any register office, but it’s usually easiest to do so with the register office that’s in the area where the person died. 

In most cases you will need to register a death within five days in England and Wales, though there are exceptions to this. 

Assess the situation and all relevant individuals and organisations

Once the death has been registered, the next priority will be to determine if the person who has died has left a valid Will. If they have, you will need to locate it and inform anyone who’s named in it as an executor or beneficiary. If there is no valid Will, you will need to begin putting together an application to be appointed as the administrator of the estate.

There is no dedicated timeframe for this stage, but it’s usually sensible to start thinking about it as soon as possible. The quicker any executors or potential administrators know the role they have been given, the quicker they’ll be able to begin taking stock of their responsibilities. This can be very important, as their responsibilities include ensuring the estate and any property belonging to it are secure.  

Assess estate

Before you can formally submit an application for a Grant of Probate (or Letters of Administration in cases where there is no Will), you will need to build a full picture of the estate.

This will include:

  • Gathering all relevant paperwork.
  • Making a list of all assets owned by the estate, including property, belongings, bank accounts, digital assets, stocks and shares.
  • Making a list of all debts and outstanding bills.

Submit application for grant of representation and inheritance tax forms

In many cases, before you can start taking charge of the estate you will need to apply for a Grant of Probate (if there is a Will) or a Letters of Administration (if there isn’t). These documents are collectively referred to as grants of representation. You can read more about when you need to apply, and when you might not, in this blog post.  

There is no dedicated timeframe to apply for this, but again it’s usually wise to do so as quickly as possible, especially if you think there’ll be inheritance tax to pay. You will need to complete and submit an inheritance tax form at the same time. 

If you’d like to get an idea of how much inheritance tax might be due on an estate, take a look at our quick and simple inheritance tax calculator.

Receive grant of representation 

Once your application is in, how long it will take for it your grant to be issued can vary. The Probate Office usually intend to deal with all applications within eight weeks, but there have been significant delays over the last few years and some have had to wait up to six months.

Pay inheritance tax

If there is inheritance tax to be paid on the estate, the full balance of this will come due at the end of the sixth month after the death. In some cases, the personal representative may not have money readily available to pay this. This might be because they have not yet received a grant of representation and are therefore unable to access bank accounts belonging to the estate. Alternatively, it might be because property belonging to an estate needs to be sold in order to raise the money to cover the tax bill. 

If you don’t have access to the money needed for the inheritance tax bill before the six month deadline, you may need to take out a short term loan in order to cover it. Alternatively, you may be able to agree with HMRC to pay the bill in instalments. It’s important to find a solution if you find yourself unable to pay the tax bill by the deadline, as if not, the tax bill will become subject to interest. As of February 2023, late payments will be subject to interest at 6.5%.

Sell property or other assets belonging to the estate (if appropriate)

Property and other assets are often sold as part of administering an estate. This may be so that the proceeds of any sales can be more easily or fairly distributed amongst beneficiaries. It may also be necessary for the personal representatives of an estate to sell assets or property in order to cover debts, such as inheritance tax or an outstanding mortgage. 

As the representative of an estate, you can legally place a property on the market as soon as you wish, but you will not be able to exchange contracts on that property until after a grant of representation has been issued. 

Pay off any debts

Once you have received a grant of representation and have gained full access to any assets belonging to the estate, your first port of call will be to deal with any debts or outstanding bills. This could include:

  • Credit card bills.
  • Utility bills.
  • Personal loans.
  • Inheritance tax/any loan that has been taken out to cover this.
  • Outstanding mortgage payments.
  • Care home/personal care bills.
  • Outstanding income tax payments up until the date of death.

Distribute the remainder of the estate to beneficiaries

The final task of the probate process is to distribute any remaining assets amongst the beneficiaries. This will need to be done in accordance with the instructions left in the Will, if there was one, or according to the intestacy laws, if there wasn’t. 

Again, there’s no particular set schedule for when this part of the process will happen. However, it often takes much longer than people expect to get to this stage and beneficiaries may be putting pressure on personal representatives to act quickly. Though it might be tempting to avoid making beneficiaries wait any longer than necessary, it’s very important to make sure all other stages of the probate process have been thoroughly dealt with first. 

Personal representatives should keep detailed records about everything they do throughout the process. These records must include clear accounts of how the sums due to each beneficiary have been calculated. 

Tax bills that may have come due during the administration period

Whoever is responsible for administering an estate will also need to be mindful that they will also need to deal with any tax that has come due during the administration period. This could include income tax, self-assessment tax returns and capital gains tax. 

What if things don’t go to plan?

Unfortunately, things do not always proceed as expected with administering an estate. Sometimes there are unexpected surprises, many of which may involve additional work and necessitate specialist advice. Equally, disagreements between personal representatives, beneficiaries and other family members can significantly complicate things. 

If you’re responsible for managing an estate and things do not go to plan, we’d always recommend seeking legal advice as soon as possible. Not only can this help to ensure any complications are dealt with efficiently and fairly, it can also often help to prevent issues getting out of hand. 

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