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Dealing with the estate

How you deal with someone's estate – their money, property and possessions – after they die depends on whether they had a valid will and whether you're named as an executor in the will.


Who deals with someone's estate?

Before anything can happen, you need to find out whether the person made a valid will, because this would give instructions about what should happen to their estate. A bank, a solicitor, a trusted friend or relative, or a will safe facility may have it. You can check for a will using the Probate Registry or the National Will Register (which is a paid-for service).

Search for a will using the Probate Registry on GOV.UK

Search for a will on the National Will Register website

If the person who died left a will

In this case, the will should specify who the executors are, and these executors can apply for a grant of probate to deal with the estate. If there aren't any executors, or they don't want to carry out the role, a beneficiary of the will will have to apply to sort out the estate. 

When is probate not required?

You may not need a grant of probate for a small estate, which is usually one that's valued at less than £5,000. In this case, write to the bank or building society of the person who's died.

Find out more about what executors do

If the person who died didn't leave a will

In this case, the person is said to have died 'inestate'. Close family members can apply to deal with the estate, but there are different rules – the rules of intestacy – that govern how their estate should be distributed.

In general, if there's a surviving spouse or civil partner, then they automatically inherit all personal possessions, the first £270,000 of the estate and half the remaining assets. Any surviving children would receive the other half of this remainder, divided equally between them. However, the rules of intestacy are complex, so you should seek legal advice if you're dealing with the estate. 

Applying for probate

A grant of probate gives you the legal right to deal with someone's estate. You can either apply via post or online. 

To apply via post:

Complete a PA1P form and the relevant Inheritance Tax (IHT) form (though you may not need to complete an IHT form if the estate isn't liable to pay this tax). Call the HMRC helpline for probate and Inheritance Tax enquiries on 0300 123 1072 to request these forms, then send them to the address listed on the PA1P form along with: 

  • an official copy of the death certificate
  • the last original will and any codicils (a document outlining a small amendment to the will)
  • the £273 fee plus £1.50 for each extra official copy of the grant (you'll need a copy for each asset holder). 

To apply online:

You can apply for probate online on GOV.UK. You can pay online, though you'll need to send a copy of the will separately. You'll be asked how many copies of the grant you need. 

Apply for probate online on GOV.UK


What happens if they had debts?

If you're the executor of someone's estate, you have a legal responsibility to pay off any outstanding taxes and debts out of the estate before distributing it to the beneficiaries.

If you think there might be more debts than assets, the estate might be insolvent. In that case, you should seek professional help before you do anything else. 

Before distributing the estate, it's a good idea to place what’s called a ‘statutory notice for creditors’ in the press, allowing 2 months for any claims to be made (though some probate specialists recommend waiting up to 10 months). If you don’t, you and any other executors are personally responsible for any claims that arise later down the line. If you place the notice, any future claims against the estate are made against the beneficiaries instead. 


Who pays inheritance tax?

Inheritance Tax (IHT) may have to be paid on the estate if it’s more than the £325,000 threshold. If a house is left to children or grandchildren, the tax-free allowance on its value increases to £500,000. After that, the tax payable is 40%.

There's no IHT to pay on estates left to a spouse, civil partner or charity. 

If one partner dies and their estate doesn’t use all of their available tax-free allowance, then any unused allowance can be passed on to the surviving partner, giving them a higher threshold of up to £1,000,000 before IHT applies.

It's a good idea to get a professional valuation on high-value items like houses or stock market investments if there could be IHT to pay, because you need to give HMRC a detailed account along with valuations. 

You can either get an IHT form by calling the HMRC helpline for probate and Inheritance Tax enquiries on 0300 123 1072 or by downloading one online on GOV.UK.

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Last updated: Nov 14 2023

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