If someone dies without making a will, they are said to have died ‘intestate’. If this happens, the law sets out who should deal with the deceased’s affairs and who should inherit their estate (property, personal possessions and money). This information covers England and Wales only.
Getting expert help from a solicitor
When someone dies without leaving a will, dealing with their estate can be complicated. It can also take a long time – months or even years in some very complex cases.
If matters are complex or you feel you need help, it’s a good idea to consult a solicitor as soon as possible. It’s advisable to show them all the information and documentation you have about the deceased person’s property, belongings and financial affairs. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to put small valuable items away for safekeeping.
To find a solicitor you can search in our Solicitor Directory
Who can deal with the deceased person’s estate?
Usually a close relative like a spouse, child or parent will have the right to sort out the estate of the person who has died.
Applying for a Grant of Letters of Administration
To administer someone’s estate you normally need to apply to the Probate Registry for a ‘Grant of Letters of Administration’. You can ask your solicitor to help you with applying for a grant or you can make a personal application.
On receipt of the grant you become the ‘administrator’ of the estate. The grant provides proof to banks, building societies and other organisations that you have authority to access and distribute funds. The overall process is often referred to as ‘obtaining probate’, though technically this term applies where there was a will.
Note that if Inheritance Tax is due on the estate some or all of this must be paid before a grant will be issued. See ‘Applying for probate’ and ‘How to value the estate of someone who has died’ for more information.
When a grant may not be needed
If the estate is below 5,000, and doesn’t contain any land, property or shares, it may be possible to deal with it without a grant. A grant might not be needed if the whole of the estate is held in joint names and passes automatically to the surviving joint owner.
Who will inherit the deceased’s estate?
If someone dies without a will, there are rules for deciding who inherits the estate. The outcome depends on the deceased’s personal circumstances.
If they were married or in a civil partnership when they died, the first person entitled to the estate is their spouse or civil partner. The spouse or civil partner will not necessarily inherit all of it. The amount they would inherit depends on how much is in the estate, and which blood relatives survive.
Different rules apply depending on whether the deceased person died before or after 1 February 2009.
These rules are complex, but information is available from the Justice website.
If you were partners but weren’t married or civil partners
If you weren’t married or registered civil partners, you won’t automatically get a share of your partner’s estate if they don’t make a will.
If they haven’t provided for you in some other way, your only option is to make a claim using certain legislation. You can make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
If you feel you’ve not received reasonable financial provision
If you feel that you have not received ‘reasonable financial provision’ from the estate, you may be able to make a claim. To make a claim you must have a particular type of relationship with the deceased -such as child, spouse, civil partner or dependant.
There are certain conditions to meetif you were living with the deceased as a partner but weren’t married, You need to show that you were ‘maintained either wholly or partly by the deceased’. (The same applies if you were in a civil partnership.) This can be difficult to prove if you both contributed to your life together.
You need to make a claim within six months of the date of the grant of letters of administration.
This is quite a complicated area and a claim may not succeed. It’s advisable to ask a solicitor’s advice. They would charge for this service.
The Probate and Inheritance Tax Helpline offers information. Telephone: 0845 302 0900. Lines are open 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.