When somebody dies it can be an incredibly difficult time not just emotionally but also in terms of the amount of administration that any appointed people in charge of the deceased affairs may face. The official term for handling the affairs and distributing the assets of a deceased person is known as probate.
A challenging aspect of probate is that most of us will never have experienced it before, meaning we may not fully understand what’s involved or even how long it can take until the responsibilities are cast upon us.
If you are going through the probate process at the moment, or if you simply want to know how to make the experience as streamlined as possible for your future executors, then here is an overview of how long probate takes and crucially the key aspects that can slow probate down to guide you.
What Is Probate UK?
When someone dies there is a legal process that may need to be undertaken to wind up their estate and distribute their money and possessions to those who are entitled to inherit them. This process is called probate. If you are in Scotland, the process of probate is referred to as ‘confirmation’.
The probate process typically includes the following steps:
- Close any bank accounts
- Apply to the probate registry to obtain the grant of probate
- Prepare the estate accounts
- Locate or identify any outstanding debts
- Calculate estate value
- Settle any debts
- Identify and contact any beneficiaries
- Distribute the remaining estate assets as instructed in the will
Given the potentially complex nature of these tasks, it is perhaps easy to understand why probate can be a lengthy process.
Before even applying for probate, the executor will need to sort out the deceased’s benefits, tax, and national insurance by informing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
While this is for administrative purposes on behalf of the government, the deceased may also owe tax, or be due to a tax refund which could affect the probate process. The Tell Us Once service can make this initial step much easier and quicker to complete.
Do I Need To Apply For Probate?
If you are named as an executor in someone’s will, then you will need to apply for probate when that person dies. This includes if you are named in an updated version of a will, which is known as a codicil.
However, you may not need probate if you jointly owned land, property, or shares with the deceased, as their ownership will automatically be passed onto the surviving owners. Or, if the deceased only had savings (i.e. no property, land, or other assets).
How Long Does Probate Take?
Research suggests that probate can take anywhere from 6 months to a year on average to complete. It’s really difficult to give an exact figure because no two people’s estates are the same.
However, here is an overview of the steps a probate executor will need to take and the average time these take to complete. We’ll then cover what can slow down probate in relation to each of these steps, to offer insight on the reasons behind any potential delays.
Step 1: Apply For A Grant Of Probate
Once you’ve established that you do need probate, a Grant of Probate will need to be applied for. Timewise, there is the option of applying online or via a postal system, and typically, applying by post for any kind of government service will take longer, because the information has to be manually processed.
The only other aspect to consider here is whether you plan on applying for the Grant of Probate yourself, or if you plan on instructing a solicitor to do it for you, bearing in mind the average cost to hire a solicitor for probate is around £6,000 in the UK, versus just a few hundred pounds if you complete it yourself, which is suitable if the estate is straightforward.
You cannot complete any further steps in the probate process (i.e. sell the deceased’s home) unless the Grant of Probate has been granted. Therefore, completing this step as soon as possible will avoid any unnecessary delays.
Average time: 4-8 weeks
Step 2: Assess The Total Value Of The Estate
Before the deceased’s estate can be distributed to any debtors and beneficiaries, the total sum of the estate needs to be calculated. By estate, this refers to everything the deceased owned, which may include:
- Any other personal possessions of significant value
Then, there are any debts the deceased may owe to consider, which typically include credit card debts, unpaid rent or any mortgage payments, plus any taxes which may be due on the estate.
Any applicable debts will be deducted from the deceased’s estate before any remaining assets or funds are then given to the beneficiaries.
It is arguably this step that requires the longest time to complete, mainly because it can be difficult to value an estate.
Average time: 6 to 9 months
Pay Any Inheritance Tax
Once HMRC has calculated the inheritance tax (or any other applicable tax) that’s due, the executor will need to arrange for this to be paid. The good news here is that the payment will usually be paid and processed quite swiftly.
Average time: 15 days
Distribute The Estate
As all of the more challenging legal and financial aspects of probate have now been taken care of, all that’s left is to distribute the estate according to the wishes of the deceased as stated in their will.
It will be much clearer and therefore faster to move ahead with this step. The probate process can then be wrapped up.
Average time: 3-6 weeks
What Can Slow Probate Down?
A slow probate process is naturally frustrating for all involved, especially as administering probate can be incredibly time-consuming, not to mention stressful. There are some common themes explored below relating to the organisation, the estate type and even internal conflict which can all slow the probate process down.
Obtaining The Grant Of Probate
The named executor needs to be aware of their role, realise they need to apply for probate and do so in a timely manner. If any of these aspects are out of sync, the rest of the probate process cannot move forward.
The Complexity Of The Estate
If the deceased owns any assets that are difficult to value or may even be located in another country (i.e. property or land abroad), then specialist input will be required, which will undoubtedly add months to the process.
As an example, if the deceased owned any rare antiques, an independent valuation will be required.
A Poorly Drafted Will
While it can be tempting to write your own will without the input of a solicitor, unfortunately not only may this not be legally binding, but there could be many unforeseen issues that arise as a result.
That’s why it’s essential to not only draw up a will with a solicitor but ensure the will is regularly updated, should the first will no longer be applicable.
Read More: Writing A Will And Planning For Your Estate
Selling A Property
Selling a property can be slow at the best of times, with average house sale times currently standing at 12 weeks in the UK.
How fast the property of the deceased will sell will depend on many things. If the property is in a poor condition or located in an undesirable area, it could take even longer to sell unless the price of the home is reduced or sold through a home buying company.
Rare Or Highly Valuable Estate Assets
As noted, if the deceased owns any valuable or rare assets, it’s going to take far longer to value these, as the items will require a current and independent valuation. The items may also be subject to taxation.
Death Of An Executor
Thankfully, the death of an executor is exceptionally rare. But if an executor does die, the probate duties will either need to be passed on to any other executors or, if another executor has not been appointed, then a solicitor may need to oversee the rest of the probate proceedings.
A Missing Beneficiary
Families don’t always keep in touch, and it may also be the case that the beneficiary isn’t just a relative but a friend of the deceased who may be difficult to trace. In either case, not being able to contact all of the beneficiaries in a person’s will can be a huge headache time frame-wise.
Families can have some complex dynamics, and while death sometimes brings relatives together, it can sometimes sadly only create further division within the family.
When a family cannot agree on probate matters, a person can actually apply to stop a probate application. Furthermore, if there are any disagreements surrounding the probate, all of the further discussions surrounding the deceased’s estate may need to be held in front of a probate judge, which will most certainly add a lengthy delay to the proceedings.
Top Tips For Speeding Up Probate
Even for straightforward estates, probate is never going to be an overnight process. However, the above reasons we’ve listed as to why probate can be slowed down certainly give food for thought when it comes to avoiding lengthy delays.
If you are the owner of the will or hold power of attorney then you can take steps to reduce any potential challenges once probate will need to be applied.
First and foremost, it pays to ensure that everyone who is an executor of the will is made aware of this, along with your final wishes. This will require a will being drawn up with a solicitor, to ensure any common pitfalls are avoided.
Some debts may not be able to be settled until the person dies. But if there are any loose ends that can be tied up now, including locating any missing beneficiaries then this can also help to speed things up once the time comes.
Wrapping up the affairs of a deceased person can be a complicated process, and as a result, can take many months if not more than a year to complete. While there are ways to speed up the process, ultimately the length of time probate takes is based on the simple reality that distributing what a person has accumulated over their entire span isn’t an easy task.
Here at Retirement Expert, we cover topics based on finance, pensions, health, home, personal safety and much more for those aged 65 and above. If you have any further questions about probate, or any topics relating to our retirement specialisms, please leave us a comment and one of our experts will get back to you.