Wills, trusts, tax and probate

What to do when someone dies

Someone packing a loved one's pictures and valuables after their death

When someone dies, there are lots of practical issues to be dealt with, at what will inevitably be a very difficult time for the person’s family and friends.  Here we outline the main things that will need to be done during those difficult early days.

Family and friends can usually deal with most of the practical things that need doing immediately after a death. Solicitors normally get involved a little later. If there is no family member or friend to deal with the practical matters, then a solicitor can help with some or all of these things.

Security and insurance for property 

If the person who has died lived alone, someone should go to their home on the day of the death to do urgent things which cannot wait. The more common steps that may need to be taken are as follows: 

  • Security: take the security precautions that you would take when leaving your own home empty for a while, such as locking all doors and windows, stopping deliveries of papers and milk and moving valuable items, so that passers-by cannot easily see them. 
  • Pets: if the person had a pet, make temporary arrangements for it to be looked after by family or friends or through an animal rescue charity.
  • Guns: if you know that the person had a gun licence and kept firearms at the property, report the death to the police so that they can make arrangements for the guns to be kept safely. 
  • Insurance: look for papers relating to the insurance of the property and its contents. Ring the insurers, tell them about the death and make sure that there is adequate home and contents cover in place. Keep a note of your conversation with the insurers with the paperwork. If you can’t find insurance documents, the insurance company name will often be found in a recent bank statement. 

Everything that is in the home of the person who has died should remain there where possible. This makes it easy to arrange for all the person's property to be valued where necessary for inheritance tax purposes. 

If there are very valuable items and you believe they are not adequately insured or secure, consider moving them to a more secure place, but consult the personal representatives or close relatives of the person who has died or the person's solicitors before you do this.

Registering the death

When someone dies, a doctor issues a medical certificate which states the cause of death. The death needs to be recorded formally on the register for births, deaths and marriages.  A death must be registered within five days after the date of the death. 

The death must be registered at the register office for births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships for the district where the person died. If you do not know where this is, contact the local authority or visit https://www.gov.uk/after-a-death/overview. A relative should, if possible, register the death but the registrar allows certain non-relatives to register if no relative is available. The registrar will be able to provide information on who can act. Ring the register office first to find out if it has an appointment system.

The following papers contain information needed for registering the death:

  • birth certificate
  • marriage or civil partnership certificate
  • death certificate of former wife, husband or civil partner
  • state pension or allowance book
  • passport

Even if you cannot find these papers, you can register the death if you have all the necessary information. Whoever registers the death should also take to the register office the medical certificate from the doctor and the following information:

  • date of death
  • place of death
  • full name of the person who has died
  • any former names
  • occupation
  • last address
  • name, date of birth and occupation of the person’s spouse (including a same-sex spouse for marriages on or after 13 March 2014) or civil partner (whether living or dead); and
  • information about any state benefits the person was receiving.

If you do not know all the details about the person who has died that you need for the registrar, you should be able to find them in his or her birth certificate, marriage or civil partnership certificate and state pension or allowance book.

The registrar issues an official copy of the register, called a certified copy death certificate, after the person registering the death signs the register. You can obtain any number of certified copy death certificates. You do have to pay for them; the price varies from one local authority to another. You can claim back the cost from the estate in due course. 

You need several copy certificates to send out when giving notice of the death to banks, insurance companies and so on. You will also need a copy for the person’s pension provider, and it is sensible to get one or two spare copies while you are at the register office as it is less convenient to order additional copies later.

The registrar also issues a certificate for burial or cremation. Give this to the funeral director who is making the funeral arrangements.

What if the death is reported to the coroner?

Unexpected deaths are reported to the coroner, sometimes by the police but usually by the doctor who was called when the person died.

When a death is reported to the coroner, the coroner usually arranges for a post-mortem. This normally establishes the cause of death. If the death is from natural causes, it can be registered, and the funeral can go ahead. 

There is only an inquest if the cause of death is in doubt, even after the post-mortem, or the post-mortem shows that death was not from natural causes. Even if there is to be an inquest, the coroner usually allows the funeral to be held after the post-mortem.

Arrangements for payment of ongoing bills 

Bank accounts and other assets in the sole name of the person who has died are usually “frozen” from the death until the personal representatives obtain a grant of probate or letters of administration. 

If the person who has died paid household bills, then the other members of the household may be worried about how to manage between the death and the grant. There are various ways of dealing with this problem, for example:

  • if a member of the household had a joint account with the person who has died, that account can be used to pay bills
  • it may be possible to borrow from a family member or from the bank
  • if the person who has died had life insurance or was a member of a pension scheme, a lump sum may be payable soon after the death.

It’s a good idea to obtain professional advice on the different options as there may be relevant tax or financial circumstances which need to be considered. 

Dealing with state pension and benefits arrangements 

The registrar will give you a form (form BD8) to complete. This is used to tell the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Bereavement Service of the death so that it can deal with the state pensions and benefits arrangements of the person who has died. 

The personal representatives or family can complete this form or ask a solicitor to complete it and send it to the DWP. Alternatively, you can call the DWP Bereavement Service or search the government website.

A number of local councils offer the DWP’s “Tell us once” service which is a way of letting a number of government departments know that someone has died, by just making one contact. If this is available in your area, the registrar will either use the service for you or give you a unique service reference number so that you can use the service over the telephone or online. The service can be used to contact the government departments that deal with the deceased person’s benefits, state pension, tax, passport and driving licence.

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Locating any Will

It’s best to find the latest Will of the person who has died (or at least a copy) as soon as possible after the death because:

  • they may have said in the Will what kind of funeral they wanted
  • the administration of the estate goes more smoothly if the executors (the person or people appointed in the Will as the personal representatives of the estate) are involved from the start.

People who get solicitors to make their wills for them often keep a copy of the will with their important papers. The original is usually kept by the solicitors’ firm: the address and phone number of the firm is often on the cover of the copy will. It’s important that a thorough search is made to check whether the deceased left a will and to make sure that the most up to date Will is located. 

If you cannot find a Will (or a copy) in the home of the person who has died, ask the person’s bank and their solicitors if they know where it is. There are also certain searches and advertisements which can be made for a Will – a solicitor can advise on  these. 

If the person who has died left a Will which does not appoint you as an executor, but you know the people who are appointed executors, make sure they know about the death. You and the executors can then decide who is to register the death, if this has not already been done, and who is to arrange the funeral.

If you have registered the death and obtained copy death certificates but you are not an executor, hand the copy certificates over to the executors or to their solicitors. If you are not going to deal with the DWP, hand over the form relating to social security benefits too. If the executors are arranging the funeral, give them the certificate for burial or cremation.

If, because you cannot find a Will, you do not know who the personal representatives are, you can still arrange and hold the funeral.

Only the executors appointed in a will are entitled to see the will before probate is granted. If you are not an executor, the solicitors of the person who has died or the person’s bank, if it has the will, cannot allow you to see it or send you a copy of it, unless the executors agree. However, they can tell you who the executors are. They can also let you know what the will, or a note kept with it, says about the kind of funeral the person wanted.

Arranging the funeral and organ donation 

It’s desirable to find the following documents before the funeral but the funeral can go ahead even if you do not find them:

  • the most recent will of the person who has died, or a copy of it
  • any note saying what kind of funeral the person wanted
  • papers relating to life insurance or pension arrangements.

Many people leave notes saying what kind of funeral they would like, or they express their wishes in their wills. You are not legally obliged to follow the wishes of a person who has died but usually relatives and friends prefer to do so. It can be distressing to discover after the funeral that it was not arranged as the person wished, so look as soon as possible for a note and for the will.

If you know that the person who has died wanted to leave his or her body for medical research, look for the relevant consent form. The form may be stored with the person’s important papers or with the will. The form will have details of the relevant research institution: contact it and follow the procedure it recommends.

It may also be relevant to consider whether the person who has died made any decision regarding giving or refusing consent to organ donation, either by recording a decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register or by speaking to friends and family. In England the law relating to organ donation changed on 20 May 2020 to a new “opt out” system, whereby consent to organ donation can be assumed in some circumstances. Further information about the new system can be found here.

When you have confirmed that the body is to be buried or cremated rather than given for medical research (if this is the case), give the certificate for burial or cremation to the funeral director. The funeral director will discuss the arrangements with you and guide you through the process leading up to the funeral and the burial or cremation.

By taking on the responsibility for arranging the funeral, you are also taking on the responsibility of paying for it. You will eventually be able to reimburse yourself from the estate of the person who has died, if there is enough money in the estate to cover the funeral expenses.

You, or other family members, may be willing to pay the funeral expenses, on the basis that you will claim repayment from the estate later. However, there are other ways of paying for the funeral:

  • look through the papers of the person who has died for anything relating to a pre-paid funeral plan. If you find that the person subscribed to a plan, contact the provider and follow the procedure it recommends.
  • a bank where the person who has died had an account, may be prepared to release money from the account. The bank “freezes” an account when it learns about the account-holder’s death, making no further payments out. However, it may make an exception for funeral expenses. Contact the bank to ask whether it will release money to pay for the funeral.
  • look through the papers of the person who has died for anything relating to life insurance or pensions and contact the providers. If the person had a job at the time of the death, contact the employer’s HR department. Lump sum payments can often be made from life insurance policies and pension schemes very soon after a death. However, you should take professional advice before using lump sums of this type to pay funeral expenses as there may be a more tax-efficient way to use the money. 
  • If you are arranging a funeral for a partner or close relative and you are on a low income, you may qualify for help in paying for it. You may have to repay some or all of it from the estate of the person who has died. For more information, see https://www.gov.uk/after-a-death/overview.
  • In some instances, the funeral provider may be willing to wait until probate has issued for settlement of the invoice.

People to notify

Anyone else with whom the person who died had a business connection should be notified of their death as soon as possible. Some of the more common persons to be notified are listed below.

  • Anyone with whom they had a business connection
  • Banks and building societies
  • Private or local authority landlord
  • Employer
  • Private pension providers
  • DVLA
  • Passport Office
  • Royal Mail: it may be appropriate to arrange for the deceased’s mail to be redirected to another address.  

Utility companies and other service providers. For example:

  • utility companies supplying gas, electricity and water.
  • broadband, phone and satellite TV providers.
  • the TV licensing authority.
  • the local council tax authority.
  • suppliers of other regular services, such as gardening and cleaning.

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Administering the estate

What is estate administration?

Very broadly, administering an estate involves collecting in all the assets of the deceased, settling any liabilities, attending to all tax, accounting and reporting matters and distributing any net estate to the correct beneficiaries.

Who administers the estate?

If the deceased left a valid Will then it will generally appoint executors who are entitled to administer the estate. If there is no Will or no executors appointed (or the executors are unwilling or unable to act) then the law specifies who can administer the estate (“administrators”). 

The executors or administrators dealing with the estate are known as the “personal representatives”. It will be important to check that the Will located is the most up to date Will of the deceased and a solicitor can advise on how to do this. 

Is a grant of probate/letters of administration required?

A grant of probate or letters of administration is a document confirming who has formal authority to administer the estate of the deceased (known as the “personal representatives”). In many cases a grant will be required, however a grant is not always necessary where the estate is very straightforward. A solicitor will be able to advise you whether a grant is needed and who is entitled to apply. 

The benefits of using a solicitor

The personal representatives need to decide whether to ask a solicitor to help them deal with the estate. For very straightforward estates of modest value, the personal representatives may feel comfortable dealing with the estate without legal advice. However, they do need to be aware that even a simple estate is time consuming and that personal representatives can be personally liable to various parties e.g. estate beneficiaries, creditors or HMRC, if they distribute the estate incorrectly, do not settle all liabilities, or do not comply with all requirements. Also, if there is an inheritance tax liability, this can sometimes be reduced, or even eliminated, with appropriate planning. Hence the personal representatives will often wish to instruct a solicitor to ensure that the estate is dealt with appropriately and for their own protection.

If the personal representatives decide to instruct solicitors to advise them in relation to the estate, they should arrange a meeting as soon as possible to take matters forward. 

If the person who has died seems not to have left a Will, then one or more of the person's closest relatives (wife, husband or civil partner, father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter) should contact a solicitor for advice on making further searches for the Will and explain what to do if the person did not leave a Will.

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Chat to the Author, Nicola Havers

Executive Partner, Wills, Trusts, Tax and Probate, Bishop's Stortford office

Meet Nicola
Nicola Havers, later life planing specialist in Bishops Stortford
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