Coronavirus: Administering an estate when there is no will

When someone passes away without a will it is known as ‘dying intestate’, and the statutory Intestacy Rules are used to govern how their estate is divided. However, it is important to stress that these rules need not apply if all of the rightful beneficiaries agree that a different distribution would be appropriate.

If you are close to someone who passes away without a will, a lawyer can help you administer the estate according to these Intestacy Rules or, if appropriate, depart from those rules if everyone entitled agrees.

Immediate steps to take when someone passes away

When someone passes away, you need to register their death within five days. You would normally do this in person with the Registrar, but it is often being done over the telephone during this period of self-isolation.

It is also important to contact the insurance provider for the deceased’s property. In some cases, you might have to take out a new policy or the provider may ask you to take some measures to help secure the property if it is left vacant. For example, you could be required to remove any items over a certain value, visit the property every few days and/or turn off the water to prevent pipes from bursting in cold weather. The insurance provider will explain what you should do, and they may provide specific advice based on the coronavirus lockdown rules.

You will also need to make funeral arrangements, which you can do personally or through a funeral director. If required, payments for the funeral can usually be paid directly from the deceased’s own bank account if there is enough to cover the costs.

At Thrings, we find our clients can be surprised to find that other aspects of administering the estate are not more of a priority. It can be comforting to know that you do not need to rush to do this, and your solicitor can help ensure this part of the process runs smoothly.

Dividing an estate following the Rules of Intestacy

Under the Intestacy Rules it is the close relatives who would inherit the estate when someone dies without a will. However, these rules can be overridden if all of the rightful beneficiaries under these Rules agree to a different arrangement. For example, unmarried partners do not inherit under the Rules, but families may be sympathetic to the situation and want this person to benefit from the estate too.

A deed of variation is a document that enables beneficiaries of an estate to alter a will or the Intestacy Rules. The process can be straightforward if beneficiaries agree. In these situations, we organise a meeting for the beneficiaries and a solicitor to discuss the preferences and agree the deed of variation. In some cases, it is appropriate for the beneficiaries to have their own independent legal advice to ensure they are fully informed of the implications before signing the deed of variation. In the context of the coronavirus lockdown, the Thrings team can arrange discussions over a video call.

Administering an estate with no will during the coronavirus lockdown

The current period of lockdown is already slowing down the process of administering someone’s estate, and we want to reassure our clients that this process does not need to happen quickly. If you are not ready or able to administer the estate, it should not be a problem to wait for a few weeks to get the process under way. Our solicitors will guide you through the process and let you know if you need to take any immediate steps.

What happens if there are no obvious beneficiaries?

Many people worry that their estate will automatically go to the government if there is no will and no obvious beneficiaries. It is in fact the Crown’s charitable fund that benefits if no living relatives can be found to inherit under the Intestacy Rules, but this situation of an estate passing “Bona Vacantia” is relatively rare. Before the estate is given to the charitable fund, genealogists will be instructed to try and find any living relatives of the deceased, and the estate could then be divided between them.

For legal advice on preparing a will, administering an estate or the implications of a deed of variation, please contact us. We have a specialist team who can guide you through the entire process.

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