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What to do if there is no will

If someone dies without making a will, they are said to have died 'intestate'. If this happens, the law sets out who should deal with the deceased's affairs and who should inherit their estate (property, personal possessions and money).

Getting help from a solicitor

When someone dies without leaving a will, dealing with their estate can be complicated. It can also take a long time - months or even years in some very complex cases.

If matters are complex or you feel you need help, it's a good idea to consult a solicitor as soon as possible. It's advisable to show them all the information and documentation you have about the deceased person's property, belongings and financial affairs. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to put small valuable items away for safekeeping.

To find a solicitor you can use the Solicitors Directory search facility on the Law Society of Northern Ireland's website or call them on:

  • 028 9023 1614

Monday to Friday, from 9.00am to 5.00pm, bank holidays excepted.

Who can deal with the deceased person's estate?

Usually a close relative like a spouse, child or parent will have the legal right to sort out the estate of the person who has died.

Applying for a Grant of Letters of Administration

In order to be able to administer someone's estate you normally need to apply to the Probate Registry for a 'Grant of Letters of Administration'. You can ask your solicitor to help you with applying for a grant or you can make a personal application.

On receipt of the grant you become the 'administrator' of the estate. The grant provides proof to banks, building societies and other organisations that you have authority to access and distribute funds that were held in the deceased's name. The overall process is often referred to as 'obtaining probate', though technically this term applies where there was a will.

Note that if Inheritance Tax is due on the estate some or all of this must be paid before a grant will be issued. Read the detail in our related articles 'Applying for probate' and 'Valuing an estate for Inheritance Tax'.

When a grant may not be needed

If the deceased's estate is below £10,000, and doesn't contain any land, property or shares, then it may be possible to deal with it without obtaining a grant. Also, a grant might not be needed if the whole of the estate is held in joint names and passes automatically to the surviving joint owner.

Who will inherit the deceased's estate?

If there is no will, there are rules for deciding who will inherit the estate. It depends on the deceased's personal circumstances.

The amounts shown below are appropriate in Northern Ireland for deaths on or after 1 January 2008.

If the deceased was married or in a civil partnership with an estate worth £250,000 or less

  • Everything goes to the husband, wife or civil partner.

If the deceased was married or in a civil partnership with an estate worth over £250,000

The husband, wife or civil partner won't automatically get everything although they will receive:

  • personal items, such as household articles and cars, but nothing used for business purposes
  • £250,000 free of tax (£450,000 if there are no children) and the interest thereon
  • if one child, one-half share of any residue remaining, or if more than one child, one-third share of any residue remaining

The rest of the estate will be shared by the following:

  • children (or if none, grandchildren) will get an equal share
  • if there are no children or grandchildren, surviving parents will get a share
  • if there are no children, grandchildren or surviving parents, any brothers and sisters will get a share (or their children if they died while the deceased was still alive)
  • if the deceased has none of the above, the husband, wife or registered civil partner will get everything

If there is no surviving spouse/civil partner

The estate is distributed as follows:

  • to surviving children in equal shares (or to their children if they died while the deceased was still alive)
  • if there are no children, to parents (equally, if both alive)
  • if there are no surviving parents, to brothers and sisters or to their children if they died while the deceased was still alive
  • if none of the above then to grandparents (equally if more than one)
  • if there are no grandparents to aunts and uncles (or their children if they died while the deceased was still alive)
  • to the Crown if there are none of the above (through the Crown Solicitor's Office)

If you were partners but weren't married or civil partners

If you weren't married or registered civil partners, you won't automatically get a share of your partner's estate if they don't make a will.

If they haven't provided for you in some other way, your only option is to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979  - see the next section.

If you feel you've not received reasonable financial provision

If you feel that you have not received reasonable financial provision from the estate, you may be able to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979. To make a claim you must have a particular type of relationship with the deceased, such as child, spouse, civil partner, dependant or cohabitee.

Bear in mind that if you were living with the deceased as a partner but weren't married or in a civil partnership, you'll need to show that you've been 'maintained either wholly or partly by the deceased' - this can be difficult to prove if you've both contributed to your life together.

You need to make a claim within six months of the date of the Grant of Letters of Administration.This is quite a complicated area and a claim may not succeed. It's advisable to ask a solicitor's advice. They would charge for this service.

More information

You can phone the Probate and Inheritance Tax Helpline on:

  • phone: 0845 30 20 900

Lines are open from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday, bank holidays excepted.

More useful links

  • Inheritance tax (money, tax and benefits section)