What do you do if someone dies intestate – without a will?

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If you don’t have a will (or those you leave behind are unable to find it), you die intestate. In that case, what you have is passed onto your living relatives in a strict order. But what do you do if someone dies without a will and what are the first steps?

What to do if someone dies without a will

The first step, if someone dies without a will is for a relative to apply for a grant of administration or ‘grant of letters of administration’ – to give it its full title. In Scotland this document is called ‘executor dative’.

SAVVY TIP: You can apply for a grant of administration if you’re the person’s next of kin, such as their wife or husband (or civil partner) or child. But, according to the rules, you can’t apply if you were living with the person but you weren’t married. You can apply if you’d separated from the person but you were still married or in a civil partnership when they died.

The person who deals with the estate of someone who’s intestate isn’t called an executor, but an ‘administrator’.

Find the beneficiaries

Once you’ve got grant of administration, the administrator(s) must make all reasonable efforts to trace those who are entitled to inherit under intestacy law, according to Nicola Plant, who is a partner with Thomson, Snell and Passmore. “That would normally include advertising in the Gazette. When you take out the grant of letters of administration, you have to swear an oath that no one else has a prior claim to the estate.” You can read more about the intestacy rules in my article called What happens if you don’t have a will? Why you should have a will

SAVVY TIP: The Gazette is a one of the official journals of record of the government. It’s been published since 1665 and is part of the National Archives.

You would normally only take out a grant of letters of administration if you have a right to claim the estate. Although, in the case of a husband, wife or civil partner, you’d have first claim but wouldn’t necessarily be entitled to all the money and property left by someone – it would depend on how much their estate is worth.

Taking out insurance

If you don’t know whether or not a particular relative is still alive – perhaps they have lost touch with the person who’s died and you have no idea whether or not they are alive – you may be able to take out missing beneficiary insurance. It will protect you in the event that a relative turns up and makes a claim for the estate.

Before you are able to take out the insurance, you would have to show the insurer that you have made reasonable efforts to track down the person in question, says Daniel Curran of Finders International, a probate genealogist or ‘heir hunter’ firm.

If you believe you should inherit

Recently someone left a comment on one of SavvyWoman’s articles saying that they’d recently found out that their father had died and that his money and possessions had been distributed.

If you think you’re entitled to receive money left by a relative who died (and here I’m talking about cases where you know or suspect someone didn’t have a will rather than one where you want to challenge a will that’s been left), there are steps you can take.

  1. Find out who took out the grant of letters of administration. That person should have tried to find any living relative who would have had a ‘prior claim’ to the dead person’s estate.
  2. Check you really could be entitled to inherit. A wife, husband or civil partner is first in line to inherit (although they won’t necessarily inherit everything). And, if, for example, you are a child who’s the blood relative of the person who’s died but you’ve been adopted by another family, you won’t have a claim.
  3. Consider doing a ‘missing will’ search. Because there’s no official register of wills in the UK, a will could be stored almost anywhere. It could have been kept by the solicitor of the person who’s died, at their bank or building society, at the Probate Office in London or using an online storage facility.

SAVVY TIP: Daniel Curran of Finders International says that fathers aren’t always named on their child’s birth certificate so, in that case, there may need to be a DNA test to establish that the child is theirs. “It becomes more of a scientific than legal issue if their name isn’t on the birth certificate.”

  1. If you are entitled to some money, you would have to sue the administrators of the estate. The administrator is personally liable, says Nicola Plant of Thomson, Snell and Passmore, if they have already distributed all the money in the estate. “If they’ve spent all the money they’ve received, it can be really hard to get it back. However, if the administrator has a property, you could make a claim against that.”

 Related articles:

When can you challenge a will?

Getting hold of a copy of a will

When and how to change your will

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