Legal Guides

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Claiming an inheritance FAQs

19 questions about claiming an inheritance.

1. How do I find out if I will inherit anything from someone that has died?

If you know who the executors of the will are, ask them. For example, you might contact the deceased solicitor. Of course, if the executors are members of the deceased’s family this could be rather awkward.

Normally, if you are a beneficiary of a will the executors will tell you – though they do not have to.

If you are concerned that the executors might be trying to hide something from you, you can get a copy of the will once probate has been granted. This happens once the executors are given official permission to deal with your late friend’s estate.

You can do this by applying to the Probate Registry for a standing search and paying a small fee. This ensures you are sent a copy of the will if probate is granted any time within the next six months (or has already been granted within the last year). You can renew the search after six months if you wish.

If you were only left a small amount (apart from any jointly owned property that has automatically passed to the other owner), the executors might not need to get a grant of probate. In these circumstances, a standing search would not help. You could consider taking legal action, but more significant costs would be involved. Take legal advice.

2. Will I inherit anything from a relative who has died without leaving a will?

If there is no will, the estate is dealt with according to the ‘rules of intestacy’. These set out exactly who is entitled to what, starting with any spouse (or civil partner).

3. Am I entitled to anything from my ex who has died?

If the will leaves you something, you are entitled to that bequest just like any other beneficiary – unless the will was drawn up before you divorced. In that case, for inheritance purposes, the will is treated as if you died before your ex. This normally means that you do not receive anything.

If you were not married (or in a registered civil partnership) but simply living together, this does not apply. You are entitled to any bequest in the will.

Apart from this, if you were married (or in a registered civil partnership) you may be able to make a claim against the estate for reasonable financial provision – even if the will does not leave you anything. Whether this claim succeeds will depend on factors such as:

  • Whether you have remarried (or registered a new civil partnership) in which case you cannot claim.
  • How old you are and whether you have any children.
  • What was agreed at the time of the split, for example, whether you agreed a ‘clean-break’ settlement.

If you think you may have a valid claim, take legal advice.

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4. What should I do if I am the main beneficiary of a will that doesn’t name any executors?

You can apply to the Probate Registry for a ‘grant of letters of administration (with will annexed)’ or ask a solicitor to do this on your behalf.

This gives you the authority to deal with the estate – collecting in all the deceased’s assets, paying off any debts and tax liabilities and ultimately distributing the assets to yourself and any other beneficiaries.

Take legal advice.

5. What should I do if a relative dies but I can’t find a will?

To start with, make sure you have checked thoroughly:

  • Search the house and any paperwork.
  • Contact any solicitors or other professional advisers you know your mother used.
  • Consider searching the National Will Register (fee required), which may provide a record if a solicitor holds her will.
  • Ask her bank in case they have the will.
  • Consider searching at the Probate Registry in case they have the will in safe-keeping.
  • Ask any other family or friends who you think might know.

If you still can’t find a will, you may need to assume that it doesn’t exist and that your mother died ‘intestate’. If so, you can apply to the Probate Registry for a ‘grant of letters of administration’ or ask your solicitor to do this on your behalf.

This gives you the authority to deal with the estate – collecting up all your late mother’s assets, paying off any debts and tax liabilities and ultimately distributing the assets according to the rules of intestacy.

Take legal advice.

6. What happens if a parent leaves all their assets to their children but they can’t agree on who should have what?

Money and readily sold financial assets such as shares and other investments are generally easy to share out, so problems normally only arise over tangible assets like jewellery, paintings and so on – particularly if these have sentimental value.

It can help to have everything valued (some items may already have been valued as part of the process of working out any inheritance tax payable). After all, there is little point arguing over who gets something if it isn’t worth more to you than it could be sold for.

You might then be able to work out a system for sharing the other items out. For example, you might take it in turns to each pick something you want or you could ‘auction’ the items among yourselves, with the winning bidder for each item agreeing to accept a proportionately smaller share of any cash.

Bear in mind that it is up to the executors or administrators to ensure that you each get what you are entitled to under the terms of the will. If this is someone other than the children yourselves, make sure you let them know what you would like to do.

7. What happens if siblings inherit an estate including a property and one of them wants to live in the house?

If the estate also has significant other assets, there would be no problem. One sibling could keep the house while the other receives a corresponding share of the remaining assets.

Alternatively, one sibling could buy the other out using their own funds or a mortgage.

Assuming this is not the case, it is clearly unreasonable for one sibling to expect to have more than their ‘fair share’ of the estate. In this situation, a sibling could consider taking legal action – though depending on the circumstances, this could be expensive and time-consuming.

Unless one party is being totally unreasonable, a better solution might be to consider mediation, where an independent expert helps the siblings to reach an agreement. Take legal advice.

8. What happens if a parent leaves everything to be shared between their children but the parent’s spouse is still living in the house?

This depends on various factors. The first question is what the will says. It would be quite unusual for a married person to leave nothing to his or her spouse (unless they were estranged, in which case they presumably would not be living in the house).

More commonly, the spouse is left a life interest in some or all of the assets. This might give them the right to live in the house and receive the income from any investments. The house and other assets would only pass to the children once the spouse has died.

The second question is who actually owns the house. If the parent and his or her spouse owned it as ‘joint tenants’ ownership automatically passes to his or her spouse (regardless of what the will says). The parent’s share of the house only forms part of the estate if it was owned as ‘tenants in common’.

Even if the parent was the sole registered owner of the house, his or her spouse may well have some rights to claim an interest in the property, for example, if they contributed financially towards it.

And regardless of all this, the parent’s spouse will normally be entitled to make a claim against the estate should they wish to.

The best solution in this situation is likely to be a negotiated settlement. Even if it is possible to take legal action to evict the spouse, this might well poison the atmosphere – making any negotiations more difficult (and expensive). Take legal advice.

9. Is a child that was deliberately cut out of a will entitled to anything from their parent’s estate?

It’s unlikely. The child might be able to challenge the will, for example, if they can claim that it was made under undue influence or that the parent didn’t understand what they were doing.

Failing that, a child may be able to make a claim if he/she was financially dependent on the deceased or is in financial need.

Depending on the circumstances, the best solution may be to negotiate an agreement where the child does receive something from the estate. Take legal advice.

10. Can I challenge a parent’s will if they leave everything to a charity or third party?

You aren’t automatically entitled to inherit from your parent’s estate.

If the will was made just before they died, you can challenge the will if you think your parent  didn’t understand what they were doing or acted under undue influence.

Alternatively, if you are in financial need or were financially dependent on your parent, you may be able to make a claim against the estate.

The best approach may be to approach the charity or third party that stands to inherit (through your solicitor) and try to negotiate an agreement. Take legal advice.

11. Can I inherit anything from a will that I witnessed?

No. A witness to a will cannot benefit from it, though the rest of the will remains valid.

You may, however, be able to make a claim against the estate if you were financially dependent on your mother or are in financial need.

12. Am I entitled to something else from an estate if the deceased no longer owned the asset that they left to me in a will?

Unfortunately, unless the wording of the will says so (eg specifying an alternative gift) you are not entitled to anything else.

13. Am I entitled to a parent’s share of an estate if my parent has died?

Unfortunately, unless the will says otherwise, the gift to your mother ‘lapsed’ when she died and you are not entitled to anything.

14. Do minors have to wait until they are 18 to inherit money left to them in a will?

Typically, gifts made to a minor are held in trust until the child reaches the age of 18 (though the will can specify an older age). That means that the trustees (often the executors of the will) look after the inheritance until then.

The will may also state how the income and capital can be used in the meantime. For example, it is not uncommon for the trustees to be able to use the income and up to half the capital for the benefit of the child, for example, paying for schooling.

You can ask the executors to let you see a copy of the will. If they do not provide one, you should be able to get a copy from the Probate Registry. If you aren’t happy that the executors are acting properly, take legal advice.

15. Do I have to pay inheritance tax on an inheritance from my spouse before the executors can give me the money?

Inheritance tax is not payable on any inheritance you receive from your spouse. However, that does not necessarily mean that you can be given your inheritance straight away.

The executors are responsible for ensuring that any debts or other liabilities including any inheritance tax owed by your late spouse’s estate are paid. If they start distributing inheritances – to you or to other beneficiaries – before doing this, they could end up with outstanding bills that they have to pay out of their own pockets. Executors can therefore be understandably unwilling to start any distribution until they are sure what the position is.

If you think the executors are being unreasonably slow – and particularly if more than a year has elapsed – you should take legal advice.

16. Can I challenge an executor’s conduct?

You can apply to the court to have an executor removed, although you would need to be able to provide evidence of serious misconduct (eg proof that the executor has been stealing from the estate). The first step is to write to the executors expressing your concerns and asking them to explain themselves.

Sending a letter through your solicitor may be enough to prompt the executors to act properly. In any case, if you have serious concerns you should take legal advice.

17. What can I do if the executors are taking too long to give me my inheritance?

If you think the executors are being unreasonably slow – and particularly if more than a year has elapsed – you should take legal advice.

18. Do I have to pay any tax on an inheritance?

Normally, any inheritance tax due is paid by the executors before they distribute any legacies to the beneficiaries of a will. So you will not normally pay the tax yourself – but inheritance tax may already have been deducted from an inheritance that you receive.

For example, suppose a friend dies leaving a house worth £500,000 and a further £500,000 in savings – a total estate worth £1m – with you as the sole beneficiary. Inheritance tax is payable on the excess over the inheritance tax threshold (currently £325,000) at 40%. So total tax of £270,000 is payable. The executors will pay the tax and give you the house and the remaining £230,000 of savings.

But suppose instead that the estate is simply a £1m house, with no savings. If so, there is not enough cash to pay the inheritance tax bill. If you want to keep the house, you will need to find the money elsewhere.

Note that you do not have to pay inheritance tax on any inheritance from your spouse or registered civil partner, even if your inheritance is worth more than the inheritance tax threshold.

19. Do I have to pay inheritance tax on money I was given by someone before they died?

Inheritance tax can be payable on gifts made by someone during the seven years prior to death. Inheritance tax will only be payable if the total value of the estate (including any gifts made during the seven years prior to death) is more than the inheritance tax threshold (currently £325,000).

Even then, any inheritance tax due is normally paid by their executors out of the assets left in their estate. But if there is not enough to pay all the inheritance tax due, you could become liable.

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances, and is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered in this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.

Published on 6th October 2023
(Last updated 25th October 2023)

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