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The Stages of the Probate Process

27 January 2024
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In the unfortunate scenario where a loved one dies, whilst dealing with their estate there is a high chance you will come across the term “probate” if you are looking to sell their property. It is a common process; between July and September 2023, there were 61,894 applications for probate grants. A total of 56,722 probate grants were issued in the same period, within the UK.

You may have heard the term before and not understood exactly what it means, or it could be something completely new to you altogether. Fortunately, this article will help you understand what probate means, the stages of this process and any reasons why it could be held up. If you reach the end and still have any lasting questions, we are here to help.

What Is Probate?

Probate is the legal process through which a deceased person's estate is settled. The primary purpose of probate is to ensure that the deceased person's assets are distributed according to their will. However, if there is no will, their assets will be shared according to the laws of intestacy - where their assets are distributed between relatives of the deceased in a certain way. It is important to note that the probate process can vary by jurisdiction, and some estates may be eligible for a simplified process if the asset value is below a certain threshold. Additionally, not all assets are subject to probate; for example, assets held in a trust or certain classes of assets such as those held as joint tenants with another person. A grant of probate is issued by the Probate Registry and takes approximately 16 weeks to be received. This is on the basis that the Probate Registry does not require any additional documents or information.

A key individual within the probate process is an “executor” who is responsible for carrying out the terms of the will, managing the assets, settling any debts and ensuring that the remaining property is distributed correctly to the beneficiaries. In legal processes, the executor is a very important figure when ensuring that the probate stages are completed without unnecessary delays, by making sure legal documents are signed and assets are distributed fairly, reducing the chances of family disputes.

The Stages of Probate

There is no concrete amount of stages to define the probate process, as it can vary depending on the number of assets, the value of the estate, if there is a will present and so on. Those working within the legal system often determine probate to be in two parts; obtaining probate and the actual administration of the estate. To understand how the typical process unfolds, we will split it into 7 parts, painting a bigger picture of what happens and when.

Valuing the Assets and Liabilities in the Deceased’s Estate

Valuing the assets and liabilities in a deceased person's estate is a crucial step in the probate process. The valuation is essential for determining the overall value of the estate, calculating estate taxes (if applicable), and distributing assets to beneficiaries. Examples of things that are valued include real estate, personal property, financial assets and business interests. When assessing liabilities, outstanding debts and funeral expenses must also be considered.

Prepare the Inheritance Tax Return for HMRC

Important information must be gathered at this stage, such as the death certificate and the total valuation of assets/liabilities. Depending on whether the estate is subject to inheritance tax or not will determine what IHT (inheritance tax) form can be filled out. If the estate is not subject to inheritance tax, no Inheritance Tax return is required and if it is subject to inheritance tax, IHT400 (and its accompanying schedules) is the correct form.

Applying for Probate

Once the previous steps have been completed thoroughly, a probate application form can be filled out. Most probate applications must be submitted online. But, if the application cannot be done online then there are specific forms that need to be completed. If there is a will, use Form PA1P, or if there isn’t a will, use Form PA1A. The probate fee must be paid upon completion of either form, together with a fee for any extra copies of the Grant required. These are £1.50 per copy. These forms can be found via the GOV.UK portal or, if you’re a probate professional, via MyHMCTS.

Beneficiaries Are Informed

This will be entirely dependent on the matter and the view of the executors. For example, in some cases, the executors and beneficiaries are the same people so they will already know. In other cases, the executors may wish to hold off informing the beneficiaries for as long as possible to avoid unnecessary interference in which case they may not be notified until after probate has been granted.

Submit Signed Legal Statements and Original Will (If There Is One) to the Probate Registry for Processing

The executor must provide all signed legal statements as well as the original will (if necessary) and send these to the Probate Registry to be processed. The process cannot be completed without this stage, so the role of the executor is crucial here. The quicker this stage is completed, the less chance of any delays in the process completion occurring. If the application is made online, these documents are usually sent immediately after the application has been made. If it is made using the paper process, the documents are sent at the same time as the forms mentioned above.

Payment of Debts and Distribution of Assets

Since the value of assets was determined in the first stage, the executor will most likely have an agreed idea of how they will be distributed. Outstanding utility bills, for example, need to be paid, alongside funeral expenses. Sometimes, assets need to be sold or transferred so that funds can be generated to settle debts.

Probate Is Granted

In the final stage of the process, probate is granted for the property. The Probate Registry issues a Grant of Probate (or Letters of Administration if there is no will), and this document serves as legal proof that the executor or administrator has the authority to manage the deceased person's estate. It is important to obtain a copy of this since it could be required to carry out tasks related to the estate.

Contentious Probate

Contentious probate isn’t something that occurs in every probate case, but it does happen due to the complex nature of probate, the emotions experienced and the number of people involved, since it is often a family matter. Contentious probate is a wide-ranging term and includes any dispute involving the deceased’s estate, such as a dispute over the value of the deceased’s assets, inheritance amounts or a disagreement regarding the validity or interpretation of the deceased’s will. These disputes will usually occur between family members, beneficiaries or other interested parties. Resolving contentious probate matters often involves legal proceedings in probate court, however, negotiation may also be used to settle outside of court.

If you are experiencing a dispute within the probate process, law firms such as ourselves are here to support you. Read our contentious probate FAQ for more general information surrounding wills, probate and inheritance disputes.

Other Issues That Can Cause a Delay in the Process

Unfortunately, delays in probate can happen, often due to the paperwork required and family disputes, amongst other things. Identifying where the hold-up has occurred is the first step to rectifying what has gone wrong if it is on your end of things. You will typically receive the grant of probate within 16 weeks of submitting your application, but missing important information could cause delays. If you applied for probate online, you can track the progress of your application online through the GOV.UK website.

Below are some of the most common causes of delay in the probate process;

  • Inefficient administration
  • Executor issues
  • Missing or incorrect/incomplete information
  • Contested wills
  • Complex assets
  • Estate taxes

Wills, Probate and Inheritance Disputes - We Are Here to Help

We appreciate that probate can be a stressful and sensitive process, especially if you have lost a loved one. Here at Culver Law, we are committed to finding the right solutions for any disputes regarding wills, probate and inheritance, lifting the weight off your shoulders. Let's work together, please get in touch today.

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