There are a number of steps which must be undertaken before an estate – that is, everything left by a person who has died – can be distributed to its beneficiaries. The complexity of each case will affect how quickly each step can be completed, and therefore how long it will take somebody to get their legacy. Beneficiaries should note that where a will is contested, or there is an argument about how the estate is being administered, it can significantly increase the timeframe - in some cases by years.
What is the process and how long does it take?
Firstly, the individuals responsible for administering the estate need to be identified. These individuals will be appointed by the Will where one has been left, and are termed ‘executors’ of the Will. If there is no Will, an ‘administrator’ will be appointed to undertake the same role, usually a close living relative.
The executor or administrator of the estate will then need to work out the value of the estate and pay any Inheritance Tax that is due, in order to be able to obtain a Grant of Probate (executor) or Letters of Administration (administrator). This gives the appointed person the legal right to deal with the assets of the deceased for example to access any bank accounts or financial documents, to sell any property and to pay any debts of the deceased.. Once all debts have been paid, the final stage is for the executor or administrator to distribute the estate among its beneficiaries according to the terms of the will.
In a straightforward case the grant will usually be obtained within three to six months of death, but it may be quicker. For example, if the estate is small (worth less than £5,000) and contains no land, property or shares then a grant may not be necessary. However, delays may arise in the administration of an estate in more complex cases - for example, if beneficiaries cannot be located or if valuation of certain assets is difficult. If a financially dependent relative feels they have not been adequately provided for, or there is a challenge to the validity of the will, then delays may be significant.
A wait of more than a year may be due to unreasonable behaviour on the part of an executor or administrator, and it might be worth beneficiaries taking legal advice to force the executor or administrator to press on with the administration.
I do not know what is happening to my inheritance so what do I do?
If a Will has been left, the executors will usually tell you if you are a beneficiary. In addition, once a grant has been issued, you can obtain a copy of the Will by applying to the Probate Registry, so that you can check the terms. If there is no Will, the law determines who will inherit though the rules of intestacy. These provide for certain family members to share in the estate.
If you are expecting a bequest which is not paid, then you may be able to take action against the executors/administrators forcing them to give you an account of all of the assets and liabilities in the estate, or to deal with the matter more quickly. Unfortunately, we sometimes deal with claims where money has actually been taken by the executors/administrators when it should have been paid out to other people, and you may then have to take a claim against them to have the money repaid.