What to do when someone dies

Losing a relative or a friend is a difficult time. Most people have never dealt with the administration of someone’s estate and this can turn out to be a complex process as it can be fraught with legal terminology, procedural difficulty and potential pitfalls for the unwary.  This guide is intended to help with the basics of what to do when someone dies.

First Steps (timescale 1 – 2 weeks)

To begin with, you should notify the family doctor immediately and, if the death was unexpected, an ambulance should be requested unless the death has occurred in hospital.

The deceased’s death has to be registered within 5 days of death and funeral arrangements should be made.

The GP may decide to report the death to a coroner if there is cause to do so for instance if the cause of death is unknown.

If the coroner decides that the cause of death is clear the GP signs a medical certificate and the coroner issues a certificate to the registrar stating a post-mortem isn’t required.

If the coroner decides a post-mortem is needed to find out how the person died they will only release the body for a funeral once they have completed the post-mortem examinations.

The coroner may decide to hold an inquest if the cause of death is still unknown. You cannot register the death until after the inquest but in these circumstances an interim death certificate will be supplied by the coroner which will allow you to continue to administer the deceased’s estate.

To register the death, you will need to make an appointment at a registry office.  You can go to any register office but if you use the one in the area where the person died you’ll be given the documents you’ll need on the day.

If you use a different register office the documents will be sent to the office in the area where the person died before they’re issued to you. This means you’ll usually wait a few days.

When attending the appointment, you will need to take the medical certificate from the GP or the hospital together with the person’s full name at the time of death, any previous names including maiden names, home address, the person’s date and place of birth, their occupation, the full name, address and occupation of any spouse or civil partner (even if they have already predeceased) and their national insurance number (if you have this). You should opt for the “Tell us Once” service which means that government departments (such as the Department for Works and Pensions)are automatically notified of the person’s death

If the deceased made a Will, you should locate this as soon as possible to see whether they made any funeral wishes and to establish who is responsible for administering the estate.

It is important to note that the first Will you find may not be the most recent one. Wills can be revoked and amended by a codicil at any time without the original being marked. You should contact the deceased’s solicitor or bank and request a a search to be made to see if the deceased made another Will or codicil.

If the deceased owned property, you need to check that it is insured and secure. Many insurance policies have a 30-day unoccupancy provision at which point the policy will lapse. The insurance provider should be notified of the policy holder’s death as soon as possible.

It is advisable to freeze the deceased’s bank accounts straight away to prevent direct debits or standing orders from leaving the account and to also prevent fraudulent activity.

Ascertaining the estate (timescale 3-9 months – from the date of death – depending on the complexity of the estate)

All of the deceased’s paperwork needs to be gathered together; this includes their last tax return, if applicable. Unless the estate is very small (under £15,000), the deceased’s personal representatives (PRs) will not normally be able to deal with any of the estate assets until a ‘Grant of Representation’ is held.

There are different types of grants, but the most common are:

Grant of Probate

If there is a Will, the executor/s will need to apply for a ‘Grant of Probate’ to deal with the estate assets.

Grant of Letters of Administration

If there is no Will, one or more of the people entitled to inherit the estate will need to apply for a ‘Grant of Letters of Administration’ to deal with the deceased’s estate.

The deceased’s assets need to be valued ‘as at the date of death’ and if the deceased owned property, it is a good idea to obtain more than one valuation (or a survey), especially if their estate is taxable.

It is also important to ascertain if any gifts have been made within the last 7 years, whether the deceased was a beneficiary of any trusts, whether they have been paying for insurance for another person’s benefit and whether they have a pension or death in service benefit, as all of these may be subject to inheritance tax.

Inheritance tax

Inheritance tax is charged on the deceased’s worldwide assets, if they are UK domiciled.  If the deceased’s assets exceed the threshold of £325,000 (known as the ‘nil rate band’), then, unless their estate is exempt, tax is payable at 40% on the amount over this threshold or 36% if the estate qualifies for a reduced rate as a result of a charitable donation.

If the deceased was married or in a civil partnership, and the second to die, they may be able to benefit from a ‘transferrable nil rate band’ and claim their deceased spouse’s nil rate band, or a proportion of it on top of their own nil rate band.

If the deceased’s estate is taxable, then the grant application will not be processed by the Probate Registry until they have confirmation from HM Revenue and Customs that the tax on the estate has been paid.  In some circumstances, not all of the inheritance tax needs to be paid up front, but this depends on the types of assets in the estate.

Collecting in the assets and settling the debts (timescale up to 3 months – from the date of the Grant)

The role of the PRs is to collect in the deceased’s assets, settle any liabilities and distribute the estate to the beneficiaries as per the deceased’s wishes in their Will or under the Statutory Intestacy Rules (the rules that apply when someone dies without a Will).  The grant of representation is the legal authority which allows the PRs to do this.

An important part of the estate administration process is ensuring that all of the deceased’s debts are settled.  The PRs may wish to consider advertising in accordance with the Trustee Act 1925 to protect against unknown claims.  Should an executor or administrator decide against placing these notices and any debts come to light at a later date after distribution of the deceased’s estate, they will be personally liable to settle these debts.

If the notices are placed, there is a two month waiting period before the PRs should make any distributions to beneficiaries.

The PRs may also want to consider insurance for unknown or missing beneficiaries if there is no Will.

Finalising the estate and distributing to the beneficiaries (timescale a further 2-3 month period)

The deceased’s income tax affairs need to be settled and a final tax return will need to be submitted to HM Revenue and Customs.

Once the liabilities have been settled and confirmation has been received that there is no tax to pay, the estate can be distributed.

However if there is any indication of a claim being brought against the estate by any party then the PRs must not distribute the estate until 6 months have passed since the date of the Grant of Representation.

If the deceased left gifts of money or specific items in the Will, these should be distributed first.  The PRs are then able to distribute the rest of the estate (known as the residuary estate) to the residuary beneficiaries.

The PRs should provide residuary beneficiaries with a statement of account (known as an estate account) and a copy of the deceased’s Will, if the deceased left one.

Estate Accounts are the best way to maintain records of the estate administration and the PRs are obligated to keep such records which must be full and complete.

Other matters

If any assets under the Will or intestacy are to be held in trust, the executors or administrators should transfer the assets to the trustees.  In practice, the executors or administrators and trustees are normally the same people and they simply change role although there may be legal formalities to complete this transfer.  Trustees must ensure that they carry out their duties very carefully and it is a good idea to seek legal advice at regular intervals.


Although we have tried to provide an estimate of timescales for all stages, it is very difficult to predict the exact period in each situation as some estates can be complex, particularly if they involve business assets or foreign elements.  There are also third parties to be dealt with such as banks, accountants and lawyers abroad which can also delay an estate administration.

How we can help

We can help you with all of the above and aim to take the pain out of dealing with a loved one’s estate in a compassionate yet efficient way.

Our Wealth and Estate Planning solicitors are members of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, meaning they are experts in the field of estate administration.

We offer a no obligation initial advice meeting to discuss what needs to be done in administering the estate in more detail and please contact us for an appointment.

We offer fixed fees for dealing with the estate, so you know with certainty at the beginning of the matter what the total cost will be.

We can also assist with changes to the Will or intestacy and advise upon the tax implications and potential savings available by doing this.

Our Probate Team

T: 020 7288 4713
Helen Beach
I am a Partner in the Wealth and Estate Planning Team. Read More
T: 020 7288 4707
Alexa Payet
I am a Partner in the Disputed Wills and Trusts team. Read More
T: 020 7288 4771
Pamela Jarvis
I am a Senior Paralegal in the Wealth and Estate Planning team, and I work primarily in our Court of Protection team, assisting elderly and vulnerable clients. Read More
T: 0207 288 4764
Sam Hoskins
I’m a paralegal within the Wealth and Estate planning team. Read More
Vaishali Kapadia
I am a Senior Solicitor in our Wealth and Estate Planning Team. Read More
T: 020 7288 4783
John Nettleship
I am a Senior Solicitor in the Wealth & Estate Planning Team Read More
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