When a person dies, they leave behind an ‘estate’ – all the possessions and assets of a deceased person. Ordinarily, a will decides who will inherit the estate. If someone dies without a valid will and testament, or a will that does not account for all of the individual’s estate, it is instead the law, or the rules of intestacy that decide how the estate is to be divided up.

Even if someone did not leave behind a will, they may have had a funeral plan, which will typically contain instructions for the funeral and cover a portion of the funeral costs.

What happens if someone dies without a will

What to do when someone dies without a will:

If someone dies without a will, they are known as having died ‘intestate’. After the person’s death, the courts will appoint an administrator to oversee how the estate is divided, according to the rules of intestacy. The estate is made up of any property, land and assets owned at the time of death.

To become the administrator, you need to apply for a legal document known as ‘Letters of Administration’ from the Probate Registry. Once this document is obtained, you can present it to the bank and other organisations to start releasing the deceased’s assets.

Ordinarily, it is the next of kin who becomes administrator, be it the spouse or civil partner, or closest relative. More than one person can apply to be the administrator, and the courts will decide who is most apt to take on this position. Whoever applies must be over 18 and be prepared to collect money from banks, building societies and other organisations.

An administrator is accountable to the courts, and can be held personally financially liable for any loss, even if a mistake was made in good conscience. Therefore, it’s important to keep detailed records and keep photocopies of documents as you administer the estate.

Common rules that apply when someone dies without a will:

  • If the deceased was not married or in a civil partnership, their partner is not entitled to any after death
  • If the deceased was married, the husband or wife will receive all or almost all of the estate, and any children or grandchildren will not receive any inheritance. This remains true if a married couple had separated but not yet divorced
  • For children and grandchildren, how much they are entitled to depends on where the deceased lived in the UK
  • If someone dies without a will, the recipients of the estate will have to pay a greater amount of inheritance tax
  • If someone dies without a will and no living close relatives, the estate is passed over to the Crown or government
  • If someone dies with debts, these will typically be paid out from the estate

Should I use a solicitor?

Most executors and administrators will use a probate specialist to advise on handling the estate. A probate solicitor can advise on dealing with formalities and tax, help sell the assets, pay off any outstanding debts and deal with distributions to beneficiaries.

It’s particularly advisable to appoint a solicitor if:

  • The estate is over the Inheritance Tax threshold (£325,000 in tax year 2015-2016) and is not exempt from tax
  • The estate includes a business or agricultural property
  • Where a large share of the estate has been left to a child
  • There are illegitimate relatives
  • The will has been badly drafted
  • If there are relatives or dependants and the will has not made adequate provision for them

Before enlisting the services of a solicitor, be sure to ask for an estimate of fees.

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