Estate Administration & Probate: A Beginner’s Guide

There is a bewildering array of terminology used around the process of dealing with a person’s assets and liabilities when they die.  Lucy Duffin from Penderlaw’s Wills, Trusts and Probate team runs through the basic terms associated with Estate Administration and Probate and discusses issues which can commonly arise with DIY Estate Administration.

Words such as Probate, Executor and ‘The Estate’ are all commonly used, but what do they really mean and is it possible to manage the whole process without a solicitor?

What is an Estate?
Put simply, everything owned by a person who has died is known as their Estate.  It includes debts as well as assets and can include the following:

  • Property
  • Money (in bank accounts and cash) as well as from life insurance payments
  • Shares and other investments
  • Money owed to the person who has died
  • Other assets of value such as personal possessions e.g. jewellery, paintings, cars etc

What is Estate Administration?
This is the process where the executor /administrator works to identify what the estate consists of and how much inheritance tax needs to be paid. Once this has been settled and any debts have been paid, the executor / administrator is responsible for sharing out the remaining assets amongst the beneficiaries, either as specified in the will or where there is no will, according to the rules of intestacy.

What is Probate?
Probate is a legal document which gives someone the authority to share out an estate of a person who has died in accordance with instructions left in their will. You obtain probate from the Probate Registry. There are variations of the probate process which depend on the specific circumstances of each estate, such as whether or not the deceased left a will.

What is a Grant of Probate?
Probate and a grant of probate are the same thing – a legal document which gives someone the authority to share out the estate of a person who has died in accordance with the instructions left in their will.

What does an Executor do?
The person dealing with the estate of the person who has died is called the executor and is named in the will. The executor may have to apply for special legal authority to be able to deal with the estate, this legal authority is called probate. If there is no will, then the person appointed to deal with the estate is called the administrator

A word of caution
People often underestimate the work involved in taking on the role of executor. It is important to be fully aware of the nature of the role before agreeing to take on this responsibility, as should any errors come to light or unforeseen situations arise once the estate has been distributed, the executor may find themselves personally financially liable.

Do you need a solicitor?
Some people do choose to administer an estate themselves. It obviously is an attractive option as it means that you can avoid paying professional fees. However, if you choose this option, you should go into it with your eyes wide open. It is important to realise that there are a number of significant risks you will be taking if you are unfamiliar with the process itself. Executors have fiduciary duties in making the relevant enquiries, dealing with any inheritance tax and to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. Even before the above is undertaken, you need to be absolutely sure that your interpretation of the will is correct.

Financial liability
It is worth noting that if you share out the estate to the beneficiaries, but then receive a subsequent claim from a creditor, or discover that there is tax still owing, you could find yourself personally financially liable. Other areas of risk include: insolvent estates, disputes, the validity of the will and beneficiaries who have been declared bankrupt.

The Citizens Advice Bureau recommend that you seek legal advice for any estates which involve the following:

  • The terms of a will are not clear
  • Part of the estate is to pass to children under the age of 18
  • The person who died has left money or property in a trust
  • The person who died owned land or property abroad
  • The person who died owned a business
  • Anyone is likely to dispute the will

You should also seek advice where inheritance tax is involved, as professionals are far more experienced in applying any allowances, reliefs or exemptions which may apply.

N.B. Professional fees will be paid by the estate, and in the event of a solicitor making a mistake, you will have the protection afforded by the solicitor’s indemnity insurance.

Get in touch
If you would like to contact a member of our friendly Wills, Trusts and Probate team about any aspect of Estate Administration & Probate, you can call us on 01872 241408 or email 

Details of our pricing is available here