That, is a question I'm asked on a near daily basis.  Well, essentially, it's a Court order issued to the Executors of the Will or the next of kin if there is no Will, which enables them to "unlock" assets that have been frozen when someone passes away.

Let's be realistic - it's also so Mr HMRC can make sure he is not owed anything in Inheritance Tax and also helps them to close down the tax affairs of the deceased to prevent fraud happening if someone decides to use their details for unsavoury goings on.

There are times when probate isn't required, such as if an estate (meaning all property, bank accounts, personal possessions) is less than £5000 or if all assets are held jointly with another person.

However, should you need to obtain probate (other names are grant of representation or letters of administration), here is a brief outline of what happens and what to expect.

Death certificates are sent to all asset and liability holders to obtain date of death valuations

These valuations are used to complete the relevant Inheritance Tax forms.  Which form you use, depends on whether Inheritance Tax is payable or not

If the estate is subject to Inheritance Tax, you will need to calculate this and if there are sufficient funds in the deceased's bank accounts, request the monies are released before it is submitted to the Capital taxes office

HMRC will then give the go ahead for the application to be made to the probate registry (they will still conduct their enquiries in the meantime so don't assume they have finished with you yet!)

If you are applying for probate yourself, you will need to make a personal appearance at one of the probate courts dotted across the country, for example in Shropshire, the nearest ones are either Stoke or Birmingham.  If there is a Will, the original needs to be sent off with the application and from that moment on it becomes a public record so don't be upset when you don't get the original back.

If you are using a Solicitor, you will not need to make a personal appearance as they will send the application on your behalf (it's also cheaper - £155 as opposed to £215 for a personal application!)

In the meantime, if there are sufficient monies in the bank account, the bank can release monies to the funeral director to settle their bill.  That, and Inheritance Tax are the only things that can be paid from a frozen bank account.

After a couple of weeks, the grant of probate should be issued and you can then send it to the asset holders along with account closure forms for the accounts to be closed.

If there is a property, contracts can now be exchanged to confirm the sale and this can proceed to completion.

Once the estate is in funds, all liabilities need to be paid, including final utility bills.

Notices should be placed in the London Gazette and the local paper to allow potential creditors or beneficiaries to raise a claim against the estate.  In some estates, an indemnity insurance can be obtained instead.

Other tax issues, such as Income Tax returns need to be addressed.

Once all assets have been realised, all liabilities paid and clearance from HMRC obtained, the estate can be distributed as per the Will or the rules of intestacy (if there is no Will).

This is a very brief outline of a process that in the most straightforward cases takes between 6-9 months to complete.  It is not unheard of for some estate to take years to finalise.

At Picasso Legal we pride ourselves on providing an efficient and empathetic solution to probate, whether that be a full administration service or a more bespoke package tailored to your preference as to how much or how little you would like to do for yourself.  This allows you to get on with the important stuff, such as grieving or remaining impartial when high emotions and family issues take over!

Probate is charged on a case by case basis depending on how many assets/liabilities are involved but always a fixed fee between 1% and 2% plus VAT of the gross value estate.  Likely disbursements will be the probate Court fee and, where relevant, fees relating to sale of assets.  
Probate matters are conducted by Louise Clayton, a consultant who has 17 years’ experience dealing with probate, wills and powers of attorney.