The work we do as probate solicitors plays a small but significant part in easing the pain and distress caused by the loss of a loved one. Whilst the greatest impact of such a loss is bound to be emotional, there’s no escaping the practical and bureaucratic issues which arise. Dealing with the estate which a person leaves behind can be a complex and time consuming process and the expertise we offer serves a dual purpose. In the first instance it eases the burden on the family of the deceased, allowing them to concentrate on dealing with their pain. Secondly, it ensures that all of the correct legal steps are taken and that the estate of the deceased person is shared out in the manner they would have wanted, at the same time as minimising any inheritance tax due to be paid.
Here at Higgins Miller we act as probate solicitors for a wide range of clients, from high net worth individuals to those leaving behind smaller estates. In all cases we combine legal expertise with a sympathetic and approachable attitude to achieve the optimum possible results. The fact that we specialise in other areas such as family law, financial settlements and lawyer supported mediation means that we can deal with any and every issue which might arise. As probate solicitors, our first duty is to explain clearly exactly what probate is and how the process impacts upon individual clients.
If the deceased left a will then the manner in which they wished their assets to be shared out will be clear, but probate still needs to take place. Probate makes it possible for the client in question to gather the assets of the deceased, have those assets valued, and then pass the estate on.
The first stage of the process is to be issued with a grant of representation. This is a legal document which has to be presented to banks and building societies before they will allow access to the assets in question. Exceptions to this rule might include estates which are worth less than £5,000 and don’t feature land, property or shares. A grant of representation will also not be needed if the estate is being passed on directly to a surviving spouse or civil partner.
If the deceased left a will behind then the executor – the person responsible for dealing with probate – would have been named in that will. Otherwise an executor, who is usually the closest living relative of the deceased, will be appointed.
The executor will have to bring together information such as bank and building society accounts, life insurance policies, investments, properties and personal belongings. These belongings might include art works, jewellery and motor vehicles. The value of all of these assets at the time of the death will have to be established, and in some cases this might mean calling upon an independent expert such as an estate agent. The person handling probate will also have to establish the level of any debt the deceased left behind. This could be in the form of mortgages, loans, credit cards and personal debts, while the cost of a funeral can also be deducted from the overall estate value.
The value of the estate will determine whether Inheritance Tax (IHT) has to be paid or not. In simple terms, estates which are worth less than £325,000 are exempt, as are those which have been left to a spouse, civil partner or qualifying charity. There are also more complex rules, introduced in 2010, which allow estates worth up to £650,000 to avoid IHT if the IHT allowance from a late spouse or civil partner is also transferred. The relative complexity of the rules (with other exemptions for a main residence being introduced in 2016) is just one aspect which makes seeking the advice of experienced probate solicitors absolutely vital.
Whether IHT is owed or not, a Return of Estate Information form will have to be filled in and returned to HMRC. If IHT is owed then the much more detailed IHT400 form will also have to be filled in. Getting this stage of the process right is vital as any Inheritance Tax which is owed will have to be paid before probate can be processed. Once the relevant forms have been sent to HMRC and the Probate Registry, the executor will need to swear an oath in person. Only then will the grant of representation be provided, thus allowing the executor to access the assets, pay off any debts, and share the estate out amongst the beneficiaries.
As can be seen from the above, which is only a fairly simple summary, probate is a complex and technical process. Whether you wish to place it completely in the hands of professionals, or simply employ probate solicitors to look over the relevant material before it is submitted, professional advice is absolutely vital if the probate process is to run smoothly and produce the correct results.
If you’ve got any questions about the probate process, or indeed any other legal issue arising from the death of a loved one, then email us at [email protected] or call us on 0161 429 7251. An initial appraisal, lasting 20 minutes, will be provided free of charge, and a fixed fee first appointment is just £50 (plus VAT). For more information on the range of funding options which we offer, please see here.