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Dealing With The Bureaucracy Of Death

By Paul Michael
1st August, 2009


Nothing can be as heart-wrenching as dealing with the loss of a loved one. Amongst the turmoil that death creates, and the high emotions of dealing with the loss and emptiness, there is the necessary task of dealing with the funeral, immediate finances and the estate.

There are set procedures to be followed from the time that a death is registered to winding up and distributing the estate of the deceased. Many would regard it as a bureaucratic nightmare.

This article was written by someone who has endured the process, acting as Executor for a family relative and dear friend. The process is described in detail, along with the pitfalls that might be encountered along the way.

All too soon after someone dies, their assets are frozen by the organisations that hold those assets. Bank accounts are usually amongst the first to be frozen. At the very time that you might be preparing for a dignified and fitting ceremony to celebrate the life of your loved one, the state is working against your very principles.

Many people prepare for death by taking out life assurance policies and putting aside some savings to deal with funeral costs and alike. The problem is that the family will not be able to access the funds until they can prove that they are either named as Executors in the Will or that they are entitled to deal with the estate if there is no Will. This usually requires an application for Grant of Probate or a Grant of Letter of Administration where there is no Will.

If there are savings in a bank account, it is sometimes possible to draw down money to the value of the funeral. This is dependant upon the policies of the bank and some banks insist on a Grant of Probate prior to releasing anything. They tend to release the funds only to the Funeral Directors.

There is also inconsistency amongst other organisations that you may need to deal with. One organisation may require little proof from you to release personal information relating to the deceased, while others demand lots of proof to provide minimal information. Some organisations simply do not follow the details of your request at all. It’s all too frustrating.

You could take the whole issue to a solicitor’s firm. They will deal with Probate and can execute the Will if it exists, or administer the estate to the letter of the law if there is no Will. However, their fees will be expensive and they don’t always act in the interests of the beneficiaries of the estate. For example, some may charge a percentage of the estate value, perhaps 10%, or they may put any property on the market at a significantly low price in order to dispose of it quickly. Perhaps the question should be: how much of a hurry you are in? After the funeral, and after being granted Probate and settling outstanding debts from any savings, there is seldom a need to hurry.

Solicitor or not, the family will still need to settle any funeral and immediate costs.

The Process

The process starts by registering the death with the official registrar who will then grant a Death Certificate. This is an important task and needs to be undertaken within five days of the death. Rather than writing about the many variations and outcomes of this deed, it is probably best to visit the DirectGov website. There is an interactive tool to help guide you. The advice is to request six or more copies of the Death Certificate upon application as this is the most cost effective way to obtain certificated copies. Retain the original Certificate and use the copies to send to organisations that demand them.  

The next part of the process is to start searching the deceased’s property for all paperwork. This is a daunting task for many as it will involve looking in places that would normally be off-limit in life. If you feel unable to do this, ask another family member or trusted friend to do it. You are merely collecting official-looking paperwork.

Unofficially, but dutifully of course, as well as the closest of family and friends, all of the deceased’s friends and extended family must be contacted to tell them of their loss. Don’t under-estimate this burden, as it takes an enormous amount of effort and, due to the emotions of dealing with death, will drain the strongest of their energy. Be mindful that you will receive telephone calls as well. Each person you talk with might expect a drawn out one-to-one conversation, which takes time. They will also want to know about the funeral arrangements, which may require another call at some point. Again, you might consider asking someone else to do this.     

Once all the paperwork is together, start sifting. You are looking for a Will or any indication of the existence of a Will. At some point you will need to document all banks, building societies, savings, insurance, shares and any other organisations holding money or anything of value. So put to one side any paperwork that looks like it might have something to do with estate value. You might find that the deceased’s paperwork is filed or bundled in a way that was suitable for them, but is not so good for dealing with the task in hand. Don’t be afraid to split things up to help you make sense of it all.

If there is a Will, this should outline how the estate will be divided and distributed to the named beneficiaries. It will also name the Executor(s) and, perhaps, any specific funeral requirements. However, before any of that can be done, there is Inheritance Tax that has to be dealt with, whether or not there is any tax to pay. Only once the tax requirements have been determined, and paid if required, can the Executor be granted Probate to do the deed of converting the estate into cash and distributing it in line with the Will.

If there is no Will (said to be intestate), or when a named Executor has no wish to do the deed, then a family member, usually spouse or child, must apply for Grant a Letter of Authority to do a similar deed to that of the Executor. The DirectGov website advises that you employ a solicitor where there is no Will. However, many cases are fairly straight forward and can easily be processed by the family without enduring the unnecessary expense of a solicitor.

The Funeral Service

Actions taken so far will take considerable time and effort, and at this stage no funeral arrangements have been made, which is far more pressing than anything.  

If there is a Will, or perhaps if another family member knows the wishes of the deceased, the decision to cremate or bury can be determined, in line with any other religious requirements. There may be other wishes, such as the choice of music and readings, choices of venue, scattering of ashes, perhaps even what the congregation should wear other than black.

Funeral directors are usually very helpful and will deal with most aspects of the funeral, plus some things that you may not know about. For example, for a cremation, there is a requirement for two independent doctors to sign parts of a certificate, for which they will charge. They are also best placed to seek advice for any of your concerns. If you don’t know of a good funeral director, seek advice from your family and friends.     

The cost of a funeral is usually split into two aspects: the costs for the coffin, bearers, vehicles and so on, plus the disbursement costs for the minister, church, grave diggers, medical certificates, etc. You might be asked to pay for the disbursement fees prior to the funeral, while the rest can usually be put off, giving you a chance to draw down money from the estate. However, the timing doesn’t always work out, so be prepared to be out of pocket.

A credit card is a handy way of paying for funeral costs and more immediate expenses. Try to use a card for which there is no current outstanding debt. This helps to keep the Probate affairs completely separate from your normal finances. Also, phone up the credit card company and try to achieve the best handling charges and interest rates that you can. They will often reduce their charges. It is worth noting that credit card cheques are very useful for paying firms that don’t accept cards, but a handling charge of around 3% or more is usually levied. There is also the interest charged for outstanding credit.

Other pressing funeral tasks include whether the deceased wanted flowers and then where to deliver them – often the funeral director will deal with this. The service itself needs to be decided, to include music, hymns, eulogy and any other readings. Once complete, and if it is a cremation, there is the decision of where the ashes and flowers will be collected or sent. Then of course there is the wake, which can be held at someone’s house or at a local pub or club. The latter is often a better choice because it relieves you of additional burdens at a difficult time.

The costs soon mount up. You should be thinking in numbers of at least £2000 and an average cost of around £3,500. Don’t be afraid to ask family and close friends if they can lend you money or arrange credit if you cannot. Most will if the money can be paid back from the estate.

There may be further arrangements to make, such as grave furniture, such as a headstone. However, this can usually wait until the finances have been sorted out.

Estate Valuation

After the funeral has been arranged, it is time to get down to valuing the estate. In most cases the estate will be worth less than the current inheritance threshold of £312,000. However, it is still necessary to value the estate for tax purposes. When applying for Grant of Probate, the application is supported by the appropriate tax form, which is dependant upon the value of the estate and the inheritance tax threshold.

Anything that can be converted into cash, including property, savings, shares, jewellery, art, vehicles, ornaments, antiques and furnishings, must be valued in an appropriate manner. You should employ professionals for things like property and jewellery, but do try to take advantage of free or low-cost services to obtain valuations. It’s their letter-headed paper you are after, not their wealth of experience.

Nowadays there is a great deal of information available on-line, so an estate agent’s valuation can be backed up by Land Registry data, available from many sources including Zoopla. EBay is a great place to look for the prices of antiques and other collectable items.  You can print recent sales on eBay to back up your valuation. Ask a reputable jeweller or art dealer to value a job-lot instead of itemised valuations, remembering you need this purely for tax purposes. Ear-rings and other body-piercing jewellery cannot be sold for health reasons, so the value is based upon any stones and basic metal costs. The same can be said for most furniture and household items – you simply cannot sell it for much value. A house clearance firm could be called in and will take the lot, offering you a measly price. They may even charge you!   

Why are you doing this? You may be audited by the tax officials. You need to substantiate your valuation. It is a terrible burden that could easily be abolished by the government, but no, this is the protocol they expect from us.

Once you know the value of the estate, you can then apply for Grant of Probate. The application form is fairly straight forward, as is the accompanying tax form. You make an appointment with your local Probate Office and you attend and make an oath that you will act sincerely upon the wishes of the deceased and you sign an affidavit that the details of the diseased are true and accurate to your knowledge. Depending where you live, there may be a delay of four weeks or more to get an appointment. Again, it is worth ordering additional certificated copies of this document at the time of applying. The staff in the Probate Office are very friendly and you can ask them about any concerns you have.

The Grant of Probate is sent on about a week or so after the interview. You would think that, armed with both Death Certificate and Grant of Probate (or Letter of Administration) that you have all you need to accompany your letter making claim to the assets. Not so in all cases. Some organisations recognise these lawful documents and will act accordingly. Others demand yet more detail from you. For example, the Bank of England currently demands proof additional that the person named in the Grant of Probate is actually the person demanding the assets. It is completely unnecessary but you have to play along with such rules in order to get money which could be much needed having paid out for funeral costs.

It is advisable to keep all monies that are associated with Probate separate from personal and family finances. An Executor bank account is useful. It will be set up in the name of the Executor, but also bearing the name of the deceased. Some firms choose to make cheques payable to, The Executor of [name the deceased].

Once monies are collected into the one account, all outstanding debts incurred by the deceased can be settled. If there is property to sell, Home Information Packs can be ordered and agents can be instructed to market the property.

The death should be announced in the London Gazette. If the deceased has any outstanding business or debt with anyone or any firm, this is the commonly recognised notice board for such announcements.

Once all monies have been collected in and all debts are duly paid and settled, the cash value of the estate can be divided amongst the beneficiaries and the bank account can be closed with a zero balance. All receipts, statement and documentation should be kept for safe-keeping for at least six years for tax purposes.

Lessons learnt

For me, this was a harrowing time and, although I regarded her as a dear friend and Auntie, this process would have been a great deal more stressful if the deceased had been a closer relative.

Nothing is free and nothing is cheap. Everything has its cost. Some of those things have a reasonable cost, while others are tantamount to extortion.  

Each organisation appears to have a different set of rules from other organisations when dealing with Probate. There should be one set of rules to make it easier for everyone.

Most estate values will be less than the threshold set by the government. Most people pay taxes on their earnings all their life to buy and build their estates. Everyone has to submit details of their earnings to HM Revenue & Customs. Yet, the government insist that we have to value the estate of the deceased before we can apply for Grant of Probate. This is a bureaucracy that is not needed in this day and age and should be abolished.

Organisations appear to adopt different rules for ordinary people than they normally would for a solicitor dealing with the same deceased. This is fuelling a needless money-go-round and should be outlawed.

Thank you: Bodmin Probate Office staff; Co-Operative Funeral Directors; various pension managers and the Bank of England staff – despite the Bank’s strange rules, the staff were very helpful.

No thank you: UK Government for making this task too stressful; Barclays Bank for completely messing up an Executor account and having the worse call centre I have ever encountered; any organisation that cannot or will not understand the process of Probate and unduly hinders the process for ordinary people at their time of need.

This will happen to you at some point in your life and you are probably reading this because it is happening now. You have my sincere condolences for your loss and I hope that this article offers some help in unravelling the bureaucratic process that this has become.



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