By paralegal Laura Williams and solicitor Nicola Hawkins in the Tax, Trusts and Estates team at Irwin Mitchell

Losing a loved one can be a very difficult time, made even harder by not knowing which steps to take next. Here are some initial points to consider when this happens.

Register the death 

A relative, person present at the death, the person arranging the funeral or executor/administrator can register the death. 

An executor is a person appointed in the will to administer the estate. An administrator would be the person responsible in the event there's not a will, or if there's a will without a valid appointment of an executor. 

You'll need the medical certificate issued by the doctor certifying the death to register; the local registrar will confirm to you which other information you will need to complete the registration. If there's an inquest into the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s death, the death can't be registered until the inquest is complete.

This can take several months and an interim certificate of Fact of Death will be issued in the meantime which acts in place of a full death certificate whilst the inquest is ongoing.

Find the will 

All efforts should be made to locate a will. If it's valid, this will state how the estate will be distributed and who will handle the administration.

If there's no valid will, the estate will pass under the rules of intestacy. These rules dictate who benefits from the estate dependent on which relatives are living at the time of death. There's also an order of priority as to who can apply for a grant of representation and handle the administration.

Arrange the funeral

The executor or administrator will have the authority to arrange the funeral. Funeral wishes may be expressed in the will if there is one, or sometimes there will be a prepaid funeral plan in place. It's worth an initial search for either of these documents before finalising any arrangements. The funeral directors may be able to help you with a database search for a funeral plan.

Once a bank is notified of the death, those monies will be frozen. You can however provide the funeral account to the bank and this can be settled from the deceased individual’s funds. Payment would be made directly to the funeral director.

What happens with the estate? 

If the deceased left a valid will, the appointed executor will handle the administration of the estate. If there's no will, the administrator will take on this task. Both executors and administrators are able to appoint legal professionals to help them should they wish to do so. 

Before the estate is distributed all liabilities, administrative and testamentary expenses must be paid. If any sum is left outstanding after the estate administration is finalised, the executor or administrator handling the estate may be personally liable for this.

Is there a property? 

If the deceased owned a property which has now become vacant, it is important that the building insurance is notified. The property being unoccupied will often change the terms of the insurance, such as the need for a property inspection every seven days. If the insurance provider is not notified of the property becoming vacant, or the terms are not complied with, this can affect the validity of the policy.

If the property is uninsured, it will be necessary for cover to be put in place.  An insurance broker will be able to assist you in finding a policy if you are unable to find cover yourself.

Do I need to get a grant of representation? 

A grant is a formal issue by the court to confirm someone has the appropriate legal authority to administer the estate. The person to take out the grant would be the executor or administrator, whichever applies.

If the estate is a small one, it's possible that banks or account providers will close down the accounts without having sight of a grant. The assets would still need to be distributed in accordance with the will. 

If there's property to be dealt with, it's likely a grant will need to be obtained. Equally, if there are large sums of money held in accounts, those account providers will need sight of the grant before releasing funds.

When applying for the grant, an inheritance tax account will need to be produced to HMRC. Any tax payable should be paid within six months to avoid interest accruing on the outstanding tax and the account should be submitted within twelve months to avoid any penalties.

There's more debt than money, what do I do? 

If the deceased individual’s estate contains more debts than it does assets, it's important that you don't make payment of any outstanding sum, or hold yourself out as an executor or administrator in any way if you haven't been appointed under the will.

If you do, you could open yourself up to liability for some or all of the deceased individual’s debts. If this is the case, it's possible the estate is insolvent and we would recommend you seek advice from an insolvency practitioner before taking any steps to administer the estate.

How can we help? 

If you're unsure on how to handle the estate of a loved one, or you would like support in administering an estate, we have a team of specialists who can assist you with any or all of the estate administration. Please don't hesitate to call one of our offices and member of the team would be happy to discuss the matter with you.