What is probate? Grant of probate meaning, application process, how long does it take explained - how to apply

Probate is a key process that begins immediately after someone dies. Here’s a quick guide to how it works

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Since the beginning of the UK Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, we’ve all been confronted with our own mortality to arguably the greatest extent since World War Two.

But this does not mean that losing a loved one is any less of a shock or a tragedy than it has been at any other time.

While grieving is a tough period for many, what the Reverend Richard Coles has called the ‘admin of death’ - i.e. what you need to do with the everyday bills and personal possessions of the deceased - can be the worst part of losing someone.

Not only do you have to go through their possessions to work out the size of their estate - a process that can throw up painful memories of your loved one’s life - but you have to cancel everything from their mobile phone contract to their TV licence.

Part of this arduous process is getting a grant of probate. But what does this term mean - and what does the process involve?

Probate is a challenging period for anyone dealing with the death of a loved one (image: Adobe)Probate is a challenging period for anyone dealing with the death of a loved one (image: Adobe)
Probate is a challenging period for anyone dealing with the death of a loved one (image: Adobe)

What is probate?

Probate is the legal term for the status and process of getting the right to deal with a dead person’s estate - i.e. their property, money and personal effects. It is essentially the process you have to go through before you can clear any debts the deceased has and then distribute their remaining assets in line with their wishes.

If the deceased has left a will, you should seek out probate if you’re an executor (the person or group in charge of distributing that will). If there is no will, you would seek it out if you were the person’s closest surviving relative.

To get probate status granted, you have to go through a person’s possessions, property and money to determine the value of their estate for tax purposes. Rules and terminology differ in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main difference in both jurisdictions is that you have to apply for probate through the courts.

How long does probate take?

Before you can dispose of the deceased’s estate, you have to apply for a grant of probate through the government (in England and Wales), which can be a time-consuming process. According to consumer site Which?, the grant of probate - known as a confirmation of probate in Scotland - can take between eight to 14 weeks to receive.

This process can be made easier through the use of a probate solicitor, with Which? saying it is a particularly good idea to use one if the estate you’re dealing with is complicated.

How can you apply for probate?

Before you apply for probate (if you’re doing it without a solicitor), you have to immediately register the person’s death with the government. Handily, it has a ‘tell us once’ service that allows you to alert all the relevant state departments in one process.

Probate is a long and complicated process (image: Adobe)Probate is a long and complicated process (image: Adobe)
Probate is a long and complicated process (image: Adobe)

You must also contact banks and utility providers to find out about their assets and debts.

Once you have the full estimated value of the person’s estate accounted for (look at this government guide to find out more) - and you’ve checked whether or not inheritance tax applies - you’ll need the death certificate and (if there is one) the original will in order to proceed.

You can then apply for probate either online or via post. If the person’s estate is worth £5,000 or more, you will also have to pay a fee (£273).

If your application is successful, you’ll get a ‘grant of probate’ if the deceased has left a will. Or, you’ll be given ‘letters of administration’ if there is no will.

At this point, you can proceed with settling up the estate and distributing it.