Probate: the best way to deal with the will and estate | Money

When a family member or friend dies, first comes the shock, then the grief – and finally an awful lot of paperwork. Getting a medical certificate, registering the death and arranging a funeral is only the start of it; the next step is to go through probate – the process of unlocking all the assets in the deceased’s estate and sharing them out among the beneficiaries.

Probate can be a lengthy and sometimes fraught process but it doesn’t have to be so. Crucially, do not make the common mistake of simply handing over the job to the bereaved’s bank or family solicitor because you will likely pay huge fees.

There are a host of specialists who will do it for less, plus lots of advice on how to do it yourself. Many recently bereaved people report finding doing the paperwork a welcome distraction. Note, if the deceased used a bank to draw up their will and appointed them as a co-executor, ask the bank to step down as executor. If you don’t it will cost thousands of pounds. If the bank refuses to renounce its role, you can apply to the court to remove them.

Do I have to use a solicitor?

You are under no obligation to use a solicitor but if you do decide to use one, don’t just sign up with the family firm, or the bank, as the charges can be astronomical – in excess of £40,000 even for a simple estate. It is because most firms operate hourly rates/percentage charging systems.

A much better bet is to use a probate brokerage, such as Final Duties, that will find you a solicitor from its approved panel that will undertake probate for a fixed fee. You can phone Final Duties or do an online inquiry. It will charge an upfront fee of £295 and it earns commission from the one of five or so experienced solicitors it will put you in touch with. It does not get paid any commission if you later pull out, so has a big incentive to find you a good firm.

What should you pay a solicitor?

For a very basic estate with a few bank accounts, and no inheritance tax to pay, the cost can be £2,500-£3,000. For a more complex estate, which used multiple accounts and with some IHT to pay, you are looking at around £6,000. Every extra layer of complication means extra probate fees. Note after 1 April the government-applied fees structure all changes.

Why not do it yourself – with some legal help?

Your cheapest guided route is possibly the £299 self-help option using the probate service from Which? – England and Wales only. Users get a 64-page pack and email or phone support for six months from a trained probate specialist. There are timelines to help you keep on track and you will get all the forms necessary to apply for a grant of probate, including examples of complete forms and letter templates.

If you have been named as an executor in a will, then you should use Which? legal probate for executors. If there is no will and you are responsible for administering the estate, choose Which? legal probate for administrators.

Can I do it all by myself?

Forms from HM Courts & Tribunals Service for probate.

Forms from HM Courts & Tribunals Service for probate.

Photograph: AKP Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Yes, and increasing numbers of people are opting to do so. The only thing that might stop you would be a lot of stocks, complex investments, buy-to-lets or inheritance tax problems.

You will need a copy of the death certificate for each of the deceased’s assets (eg each bank account, credit card, mortgage etc) and before you can start probate, you will need to register the death.

If there is no will, the next of kin should apply to the court for “letters of administration”, also known as a “grant of administration”.

If you cannot find the deceased’s bank, building society or savings accounts, the website My Lost Account can find out where they held an account, although it can take up to three months to trace. You should also claim on any outstanding life or other insurance policies.

Fill in the probate application form PA1P yourself, or call the helpline for assistance in filling in the form. Provided there are no complications, it usually takes between four and eight weeks to get a grant of probate after you have submitted the application.

Once you totted up the assets, you will need to complete an inheritance tax form to HMRC to see if the estate is liable. If it is below the £325,000 IHT threshold, use form IHT205, or IHT400 if it is above. To do this you will need to work out how much the estate is worth. You will have to attend a probate interview and swear on oath.

There is a mountain of advice online on how to do it yourself – particularly on the government websites. There is nothing to stop you starting the process, before calling in an expert if it all becomes too much.

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