How to get probate and when it is needed

It can take months to have probate approved, but you can save money by doing it yourself

Pile of coins in front of model of a house
You may need to apply for probate to manage someone’s estate after they have died
(Image credit: Getty Images / William Potter)

Dealing with the death of a loved one is upsetting and stressful enough, but there are specific and sometimes complex rules to follow if you have been put in charge of managing their estate.

To distribute assets such as inherited money, you need permission, which has to be granted through a legal document known as probate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and as confirmation in Scotland.

Technically, “probate” refers to getting permission to carry out the wishes within someone’s will, explained Which?, “though the term also applies to the whole process of settling someone’s estate”.

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This can be yet another thing to deal with at a difficult time, said MoneySavingExpert, but it’s often something you can do yourself, which can save you thousands of pounds.

Who can apply for probate?

If there is a will, you can apply for probate if you’re named as an executor – the person responsible for overseeing and distributing the estate – in the document.

If no will can be found, said, the most “entitled” person can apply to become the administrator of the estate under the rules of intestacy. This is the closest living relative – “normally the husband, wife or civil partner including if you were separated followed by any children 18 or over, including legally adopted children but not step-children”.

When do you need probate?

To gain access to the bank accounts of someone who has died and sort out their property and possessions, said The Times Money Mentor, the executors may need legal control of their assets through probate. The document may not be needed if the estate is left to a spouse, the website explained, “because jointly owned assets, such as a home or joint bank accounts, will automatically pass to them”.

However, if the deceased person had savings or property in their own name, or the couple owned their home as tenants in common, probate would be needed to gain full ownership.

The deciding factor may be how much the deceased has in individual savings, investment and pension accounts, added The Money Edit. If you have less than £5,000 in each account, “it’s very unlikely your executor will need to apply for probate.”

If you have more than £50,000 in an account, then it is likely it will be needed, the financial website added. “Unfortunately, that’s a grey area as banks and financial institutions are allowed to set their own rules on how much money they can release before seeing a grant of probate.”

How to apply

Before applying for probate, explained Which?, you need to register the death, assess the size of the estate and what’s included, and complete an inheritance tax (IHT) form for any money owed to HMRC. If there is IHT to pay, said, you must start paying it and wait 20 working days after sending the IHT forms to HMRC before applying for probate.

A probate application can then be made online or by post using paper form PA1P if there is a will.

The person applying will need to provide details of the person who died, the names of the executors, a certified copy of the death certificate, and the gross and the net estate valuation figures disclosed on HMRC forms.

You will need to send supporting documents and the will by post regardless of whether you completed a paper or online form. You won’t get the will back, added the Times Money Mentor, as it becomes a public document, “so make a spare copy before you send it off.”

Getting probate approved can be a long process, with the average waiting time for both paper and digital applications at 10.8 weeks in the first three months of 2023, up from 9.6 weeks in the final quarter of 2022, according to government data.

This means some people have also missed out on inheritance tax refunds because they breached the one-year deadline to claim relief on share price falls while they waited, warned ThisIsMoney.

How much does probate cost?

Application fees for probate in England and Wales are £273, “whether you apply through a solicitor or take the DIY option”, MoneySavingExpert said. There is an exemption for estates worth less than £5,000. In Northern Ireland, the fee is £261 for estates worth more than £10,000, and no fee for those worth less. Additional copies of the probate form can be ordered for £1.50 each.

The task of obtaining probate and completing estate administration can be lengthy and daunting, said MoneyHelper. It’s a job we rarely have to do and the potential complexity might make the idea of hiring a professional firm appealing, but “you will likely save thousands of pounds if you do it yourself.”

A probate specialist, lawyer or even some banks can help you apply for probate and may charge hourly rates or fixed fees. According to SunLife, the average cost of using a probate specialist was around £2,600 in 2022 – up 10% on 2021.

If you’re dealing with an uncomplicated estate, added MoneySavingExpert, “it’s much cheaper to do it yourself.”

Marc Shoffman is an award-winning freelance journalist, specialising in business, property and personal finance. He has a master’s degree in financial journalism from City University and has previously written for FTAdviser, ThisIsMoney, The Mail on Sunday and MoneyWeek. This article is based on information first published on The Week’s sister site, The Money Edit.

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Marc Shoffman is an NCTJ-qualified award-winning freelance journalist, specialising in business, property and personal finance. He has a BA in multimedia journalism from Bournemouth University and a master’s in financial journalism from City University, London. His career began at FT Business trade publication Financial Adviser, during the 2008 banking crash. In 2013, he moved to MailOnline’s personal finance section This is Money, where he covered topics ranging from mortgages and pensions to investments and even a bit of Bitcoin. Since going freelance in 2016, his work has appeared in MoneyWeek, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and on the i news site.