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I’ve been asked to be an executor of a will, now what? – 10 steps to follow that will help you ace this task

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I’ve been asked to be an executor of a will, now what? – 10 steps to follow that will help you ace this task

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7 minute read

Every adult needs a will.

“Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.” – Homer, The Illiad.

Some may consider this morbid, but, inevitably, we will all die in the future and it is, therefore, imperative to enjoy life but be prudent for what you leave here once you have passed.

We try to plan our lives so that we enjoy them, and it is just as important to plan for our end; if only to make the event easier on your family when the time comes.

According to the latest research, 55% of the adult population in the U.K. do not have a will. That’s a staggering 31 million adults.

This also means that many of us may not understand what a will entails.

When making a will you will need to name at least one executor. An executor is a person(s) who will be responsible for administering your estate after your death. It is prudent to name two people in case one of them should die or relinquish their duty for other reasons. It is possible to have up to four executors, but this could create confusion and complications when administering an estate.

First, a note of advice to you as the writer of the will:

Make a list of important contacts and keep them with your will

One of the most challenging aspects of being an executor is ensuring that all the relevant companies, family, and friends are contacted to inform them that the person in question has passed away. Hereby, making a list of everyone your executor needs to contact (and keeping it up to date) is going to make their life much easier. The list can include:

  • Banks
  • Utility companies
  • The council
  • Employers
  • Pension companies
  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP - contact for benefits and the state pension)
  • Insurance companies
  • Investment companies
  • Family to be notified
  • Friends to be notified

You should include account and/or reference numbers if relevant and a phone number and address.

Keep your executors up to date with the location of your will and provide them with a copy

Your executors will need to make sure they have the latest copy of your will, as without this could result in confusion and unnecessary delays. Many solicitors and will-writing companies will store your will for you or it could be that you have the copy at home. Knowing the location will be very important and it would also be useful for your executors to have a copy.

Leave some ideas about your funeral

Most wills include a section that details if you wish to be cremated or buried with additional details such as where to be buried or where to scatter ashes.

Even the smallest details such as stating preferences over clothing, expenses, costs can be extremely helpful for family and friends at such a difficult time and can save valuable time on ‘guesswork’.

10 steps for executors to follow

Below are detailed some helpful steps you can take if you have been asked to be the executor of a will

Step 1 - Register the death and inform relatives

You can register a death at the registry office for the district where the person who died lived. If they died in the hospital, it will instead be the registry office for the district in which the hospital or care home is situated. You will need to present a medical certificate along with, ideally, the birth and marriage certificate of the deceased.

Further information can be found here:

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/death-and-wills/what-to-do-after-a-death/

https://www.gov.uk/register-a-death     

After registration, you will be given a green certificate (which allows burial or cremation), a form for the DWP, and the death certificate. You may need several originals to notify institutions. Therefore, keep these safe and secure.

Step 2 – Make sure you have the latest copy of the will

As mentioned previously, ensuring you have the latest copy of the deceased’s will is crucial. Ideally, you will have a copy and/or will have been kept up to date regarding its location.

The Co-op has a useful guide for how to locate a will:

https://www.co-oplegalservices.co.uk/media-centre/articles-jan-aug-2015/finding-a-will-after-someone-dies/

If the deceased had a financial planner, they may also have a copy of the latest will for their client.

Step 3 – Make funeral arrangements

Undeniably, this will be an easier task if you have been fortunate to discuss this with the deceased before the passing. Increasingly, today, people are choosing to have a natural burial and there are over 270 sites in the U.K. The formal ‘Victorian’ service with prayers and hymns, although conventional once, may not be the preferred choice today, so be prepared.

Bear in mind that the person who asked you to be an executor may have a different religion and different values and beliefs, the specific details of which are unknown to you. Talk to them about what you should do. They may have a guidebook or a specific contact for you.

Step 4 – Consider using a solicitor

Being the executor of a will is a huge responsibility. It can be extremely complex, hugely demanding, and undoubtedly time-consuming. The whole process entails navigating an immense amount of paperwork, as well as dealing with legal and tax processes. It could be prudent to get support from a solicitor. They may charge a set fee or on a time basis, so it is important to determine this from the start as navigating wills can take time, so costs could mount up.

The costs of a solicitor can be paid directly from the funds in the estate and although they are an additional cost, they can ease levels of anxiety, making the difficult situation less stressful for all involved. In England and Wales, the executor can be held personally and financially liable for mistakes when administering the estate, so it is a good idea to consider a solicitor from the very beginning.

Step 5 - Go through all the paperwork

Unless you have been left with a clear list of all the deceased’s assets and contact details for the relevant companies, to some extent it will be necessary for you to sift through personal paperwork. You need to determine who to contact, many agencies and stakeholders will require sight of an ‘original’ death certificate. You do not necessarily need to pay for extra ‘originals’ of the death certificate as companies will send the document back once they have registered the estate and name the account as an executor's account.

Holding additional copies of the death certificate, however, can be a good solution and can help to speed up the process.

Step 6 – Value the estate

The estate needs to be valued so that you know if any inheritance tax (IHT) is due. Once you have calculated the estate value it needs to be reported to HMRC:

The following may be useful:

https://www.gov.uk/valuing-estate-of-someone-who-died

Step 7 – Apply for a Grant of Probate

Probate is the entire process of administering an estate. Probate ends once all the deceased’s assets have been dealt with and the estate distributed to beneficiaries.

Before any investments or assets from the deceased’s estate can be paid out, a probate certificate will need to be sent to investment and insurance companies. Generally, before a probate certificate is issued, any inheritance tax (IHT) due on the estate will need to be paid. The relevant IHT forms will usually be submitted at the same time as the probate application.

If the inheritance tax is due, then an IHT 400 form will need to be completed. If no inheritance tax is due, then you can use an IHT 205 form.

How do I apply for probate?

To apply for probate online you can go to the following government site:

https://www.gov.uk/applying-for-probate/apply-for-probate

Do you always have to apply for probate?

No. If the deceased’s assets were only held in joint names, then these assets will pass to the other joint holder automatically.

If they had additional cash savings or premium bonds, then probate would not need to be applied for. It can be helpful, however, to contact each bank or savings provider to check, as some may require probate.

Step 8 – Set up an executors account

This is necessitated to accept the proceeds of the estate before any debts are paid off or any money is distributed to the beneficiaries of the will. The deceased’s bank may set you up with an executor's account.

Step 9 – Pay off debts

Once assets have been distributed to the executor’(s) account then any debts owed against the estate can be paid. This could include mortgages, credit cards, and tax.

Step 10 – Distribute the estate

Once debts are settled, the remaining estate can be distributed to the beneficiaries, following the will. There could be a spouse or children to distribute proceeds to, but also specific requests to friends, institutions, or charities, as determined in the will.

Once the estate has been distributed, the final Estate Accounts can be completed. The Estate Accounts detail exactly what monies were paid in and withdrawn from the account.

See here for further details on Estate Accounts:

https://www.co-oplegalservices.co.uk/media-centre/articles-sept-dec-2018/what-are-estate-accounts/

Q. – What if I don’t have the money for inheritance tax?

Typically, the capital from the estate is what would be utilised to offset any inheritance tax due. Inheritance tax is due at the end of the sixth month following death. Notably, however, the money and assets within the estate can only be accessed once the inheritance tax has been paid. Some banks and investment providers can pay inheritance tax directly to HMRC before a probate certificate is issued. You will need to obtain an inheritance tax reference number from HMRC.

You can pay inheritance tax across equal installments over 10 years on assets such as property that can take substantially longer to sell-off. Interest will also be due on these payments, so it is important to realise this.

Q. – Do I have to wait for probate to distribute the proceeds of all assets?

Many defined contribution (i.e. not final salary) pensions will be subject to a pension trust, with the pension provider acting as trustee. The deceased may have completed a nomination form indicating who should receive the proceeds of the pension. In this scenario, and with the agreement of the pension provider as trustee, then these assets can be distributed immediately.

Please note this does not necessarily apply to all pensions – check directly with the pension company. If the deceased had a final salary pension, then there will be set rules on who can inherit the pension income and how much. The scheme administrator will be able to help with these aspects.

If the deceased had a life insurance policy in trust, then probate will not be required to pay out the insurance proceeds. You will need to have the trust document, the death certificate, and sometimes the policy documents (although a ‘lost policy documents form’ can be completed in many cases).

Don’t take it lightly

As described here, undertaking the role of an executor takes time, patience, and attention to detail. Do you have the skills and are you suited to the task? Consider your decision very carefully before saying yes, because it can be many years from now before you need to act.

And if there isn’t a will, what about intestacy?

Intestacy occurs when the deceased failed to have a will or had a will that was not correctly executed. In this instance, the courts are left to settle the deceased’s estate. The rules are notably different in England/Wales; Scotland; and Northern Ireland.

The flowchart from Beyond shows how the assets in the estate are distributed.

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