Define: Probate

Quick Summary of Probate

Probate is the legal process through which the assets and estate of a deceased individual are administered, managed, and distributed according to their will or state law. The probate process involves validating the deceased person’s will (if one exists), appointing an executor or administrator to oversee the estate, identifying and inventorying assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing remaining assets to heirs or beneficiaries. Probate ensures that the deceased’s wishes are carried out and that assets are transferred in a fair and orderly manner. The complexity and duration of probate proceedings can vary depending on factors such as the size of the estate, the presence of a valid will, and any disputes among heirs or beneficiaries.

What is the dictionary definition of Probate?
Dictionary Definition of Probate

Probate is the legal process in which a will is reviewed to determine whether it is valid and authentic.

  1. legal The legal process of verifying the legality of a will.
  2. legal A copy of a legally recognised and qualified will.
  3. short for probate court
  1. n. the process of proving a will is valid and thereafter administering the estate of a dead person according to the terms of the will. The first step is to file the purported will with the clerk of the appropriate court in the county where the deceased person lived, along with a petition to have the court approve the will and appoint the executor named in the will (or, if none is available, an administrator) with a declaration of a person who had signed the will as a witness. If the court determines the will is valid, it then “admits” the will to probate.
  2. n. a general term for the entire process of administering the estates of dead persons, including those without wills, with court supervision. The means of “avoiding” probate exist, including creating trusts in which all possessions are handled by a trustee, making lifetime gifts, or putting all substantial property in joint tenancy with an automatic right of survivorship in the joint owner. Even if there is a will, probate may not be necessary if the estate is small with no real estate title to be transferred or if all of the estate is either jointly owned or community property. Reasons for avoiding probate are the fees set by statute and/or the court (depending on state laws) for attorneys, executors, and administrators; the need to publish notices, court hearings, and paperwork; the public nature of the proceedings; and delays while waiting for creditors to file claims even when the deceased owed no one.
  3. v. to prove a will in court and proceed with the administration of a deceased’s estate under court supervision.
  4. adj. reference to the appropriate court for handling estate matters, as in “probate court.

The word “probate” is the term generally used to describe what happens to a person’s property when he or she dies. The court process following a person’s death includes proving the authenticity of the deceased person’s will, appointing someone to handle the deceased person’s affairs identifying and inventorying the deceased person’s property paying debts and taxes identifying heirs, and distributing the deceased person’s property according to the will or, if there is no will, according to state law. Formal court-supervised probate is a costly, time-consuming process—a windfall for lawyers—which is best avoided if possible.

Full Definition Of Probate

In England and Wales, Probate is the word normally used to describe the legal and financial processes involved in dealing with the property, money and possessions (called the assets) of a person who has died.

The primary purpose of a probate proceeding is to make sure all of the decedent’s debts are paid and that the remaining property is transferred to the persons who are legally entitled to it.  In the UK, different methods are used, depending on the fair market value of the assets and how the title is held.

Before the next of kin or executor named in the will can claim, transfer, sell, or distribute any of the deceased’s assets, they may have to apply for probate.

When probate has been granted through a grant of probate or Letters of Administration the next of kin or executor can start to deal with the deceased person’s assets in accordance with their will.

Probate is a legal process that occurs after someone dies, encompassing the validation of their will (if one exists) and the administration of their estate. This process is critical for ensuring the decedent’s debts are paid, and the remaining assets are distributed according to their wishes or the law. This overview explores the probate process in detail within the context of British law, covering key concepts, the role of the executor, intestacy rules, and related legal challenges.

Understanding Probate

Probate is derived from the Latin word “probatum,” meaning “proved” or “tested.” In a legal context, probate refers to the process of proving a will’s validity in court. If the decedent left a will, the process involves the court confirming the will’s authenticity and appointing an executor to administer the estate. If there is no will, the court appoints an administrator to distribute the assets according to the rules of intestacy.

Key Concepts in Probate

Wills and Testaments

A will is a legal document expressing a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their property after death. It may also include instructions for the care of minor children. For a will to be valid in the UK, it must be:

  1. In Writing: Oral wills are generally not recognized.
  2. Signed by the Testator: The person making the will (testator) must sign it or direct someone else to sign it in their presence.
  3. Witnessed: At least two witnesses must be present when the testator signs the will. These witnesses must also sign the will in the presence of the testator.


Intestacy occurs when someone dies without leaving a valid will. The distribution of the estate is then governed by the rules of intestacy, as stipulated by the Administration of Estates Act 1925. These rules prioritize relatives based on their relationship with the deceased, typically starting with the spouse or civil partner, followed by children, parents, siblings, and more distant relatives.

Executors and Administrators

The executor is a person named in the will to administer the estate. Their duties include collecting and valuing the assets, paying any debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining estate according to the will. If there is no will, the court appoints an administrator to perform these duties, typically a close relative of the deceased.

The Probate Process

1. Locating the Will

The first step in the probate process is to locate the deceased’s will. This document may be stored at home, with a solicitor, or at a bank. If a will cannot be found, it is assumed the deceased died intestate, and the rules of intestacy apply.

2. Applying for Probate

The executor must apply for a “grant of probate” from the Probate Registry, which gives them the legal authority to deal with the deceased’s estate. The application involves submitting several documents, including the original will, a death certificate, and an inheritance tax form.

If there is no will, an interested party must apply for a “grant of letters of administration.” The process is similar, but the applicant must follow intestacy rules for distributing the estate.

3. Valuing the Estate

The executor or administrator must compile a comprehensive inventory of the deceased’s assets and liabilities. This includes property, bank accounts, investments, personal belongings, and debts. An accurate valuation is crucial for calculating inheritance tax (IHT).

4. Paying Inheritance Tax

Inheritance Tax is a significant consideration in the probate process. It is a tax on the estate of the deceased and is payable if the value of the estate exceeds a certain threshold. As of 2024, the threshold (known as the nil-rate band) is £325,000. Assets above this threshold are taxed at 40%, though various reliefs and exemptions can reduce the IHT liability.

5. Distributing the Estate

Once debts and taxes are paid, the executor or administrator distributes the remaining assets according to the will or intestacy rules. This step involves transferring ownership of property, distributing funds, and ensuring all beneficiaries receive their entitlements.

Intestacy Rules

When someone dies intestate, the distribution of their estate follows a strict legal framework. The rules of intestacy in England and Wales prioritize relatives in the following order:

  1. Spouse or Civil Partner: The surviving spouse receives the first £270,000 of the estate, all personal chattels, and half of the remaining estate. The other half is divided equally among the deceased’s children.
  2. Children: If there is no surviving spouse, the children inherit the entire estate equally.
  3. Parents: If there are no children, the parents inherit the estate.
  4. Siblings: If there are no surviving parents, siblings inherit the estate.
  5. More Distant Relatives: If there are no siblings, the estate passes to more distant relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

If there are no surviving relatives, the estate passes to the Crown under the doctrine of bona vacantia.

Role and Responsibilities of the Executor

The executor plays a pivotal role in the probate process, with responsibilities that include:

  1. Gathering Information: Locating the will and compiling a list of assets and liabilities.
  2. Valuing the Estate: Ensuring an accurate valuation of all assets and debts.
  3. Applying for Probate: Submitting the necessary documents to obtain a grant of probate.
  4. Paying Debts and Taxes: Settling the deceased’s debts and paying any inheritance tax due.
  5. Distributing Assets: Distributing the remaining estate according to the will or intestacy rules.

Executors must act in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries, exercising due diligence and care throughout the process.

Legal Challenges in Probate

Probate can give rise to various legal challenges, including:

Contesting the Will

A will can be contested on several grounds, such as:

  1. Lack of Testamentary Capacity: Arguing that the testator lacked the mental capacity to make a valid will.
  2. Undue Influence: Claiming that the testator was coerced or manipulated into making the will.
  3. Fraud or Forgery: Alleging that the will is fraudulent or forged.
  4. Improper Execution: Asserting that the will was not executed according to legal requirements.

Contesting a will can result in lengthy and costly legal battles, often requiring the intervention of the courts to resolve.

Claims Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975

The Inheritance Act allows certain individuals to claim reasonable financial provision from the estate if they believe the will or intestacy rules do not provide adequately for them. Eligible claimants include:

  1. Spouse or Civil Partner: Entitled to reasonable financial provision.
  2. Former Spouse or Civil Partner: If they have not remarried or entered into a new civil partnership.
  3. Children: Including adult children.
  4. Dependants: Individuals who were financially maintained by the deceased.

The court considers several factors when determining claims, including the claimant’s financial needs, the size of the estate, and the nature of the relationship with the deceased.

The Probate Registry

The Probate Registry is a division of the High Court responsible for overseeing the probate process. It handles applications for grants of probate and letters of administration, maintains records of all grants issued, and provides guidance on probate matters.

Applying for a Grant

To apply for a grant of probate or letters of administration, the executor or administrator must submit the following to the Probate Registry:

  1. Application Form: Available from the government’s website.
  2. Original Will: If applicable.
  3. Death Certificate: A certified copy of the death certificate.
  4. Inheritance Tax Form: Completed and submitted to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The Probate Registry reviews the application and, if satisfied, issues the grant, authorizing the executor or administrator to administer the estate.

Probate and Property

Handling property during probate involves several steps:

  1. Valuing Property: Obtaining a professional valuation of any real estate owned by the deceased.
  2. Paying Mortgages: Ensuring any outstanding mortgage balances are settled.
  3. Transferring Ownership: Transferring property titles to beneficiaries or selling property to distribute proceeds.

Property often represents a significant portion of the estate, making its accurate valuation and efficient handling crucial.

International Probate

When the deceased owned assets in multiple jurisdictions, the probate process becomes more complex. The executor may need to obtain a grant of probate or its equivalent in each country where assets are located. This can involve navigating different legal systems and adhering to varying probate laws.

Avoiding Probate

Some individuals take steps to avoid probate altogether, seeking to simplify the process for their heirs. Common strategies include:

  1. Joint Ownership: Holding property jointly with rights of survivorship, so it automatically passes to the co-owner upon death.
  2. Trusts: Establishing trusts to hold assets outside the probate process.
  3. Gifts: Gifting assets during the testator’s lifetime to reduce the size of the estate.


Probate is a fundamental legal process ensuring the orderly administration of a deceased person’s estate. While it can be complex and time-consuming, understanding the key concepts and steps involved can help executors and beneficiaries navigate the process more effectively. Whether dealing with a will or intestacy, the executor’s role is crucial in ensuring the deceased’s wishes are honored, debts are paid, and assets are distributed fairly and legally.

Probate FAQ'S

Probate is the legal process of settling an estate after the death of an individual.

The probate court in most counties supervises the division of assets according to the instructions in a will or, in the absence of a will, as required by state law. An attorney represents the estate and seeks a settlement that is approved by the court.

In the case of a trust, the instructions of the trust are carried out without taking the estate to probate. Only assets not properly titled to the trust must be probated.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 10th June 2024.

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Our team of professionals are based in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. We offer clear, specialist legal advice in all matters relating to Family Law, Wills, Trusts, Probate, Lasting Power of Attorney and Court of Protection.

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