InsightsResource - Wills and Probate - UPDATED: January 17 2023
What to do when someone dies
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When you are faced with the death of a family member or friend it can be a devastating and overwhelming time. We understand that if you are faced with this situation, you just need simple advice on the steps to take when dealing with the person’s affairs to make the process as easy as possible.
Our guidance below provides straightforward information covering the steps that you need to take when someone has died, and other key considerations.
If you want to talk through the process with us, our experienced legal team offer a free 30-minute consultation appointment. We can discuss probate matters and help you to understand what you need to do. Please get in touch to arrange your free appointment.
The probate process – first steps
The main things that need doing within a few days after a death, are to:
- Visit the home of the deceased and ensure its security
- Register the death
- Start arranging the funeral
- Tell people about the death
The family and friends of the person who has died can usually deal with most of the practical things that need doing immediately after a death. Solicitors normally get involved a little later, when the personal representatives ask for their advice about the estate.
If there is no family member or friend to deal with the practical matters, then solicitors can help with some or all of these too – but they will charge for this.
Visit the deceased person’s property
If the person who has died lived in a private property, other than a residential home or nursing home, you will need to ensure that their property is secure.
You will also need to find all the relevant paperwork required to progress with registering their death and organising the management of their estate.
As soon as possible after the death, but not necessarily before the funeral, find up-to-date papers and information relating to as many of the following as are relevant:
- Birth certificate
- Marriage certificate
- Their will
- State pension or allowance book
- National Insurance number
- Current bank or building society account
- Details of any assets (in sole or joint names)
- Rental agreement
- Driving licence and vehicle registration
- Suppliers of gas, electricity and water
- Broadband, phone and satellite TV providers
- Television licence
- Council tax
- Other service providers, such as cleaners and gardeners
This information will enable you, or the personal representatives, to deal with the matters set out in the section on telling people about the death.
Where possible, visit the person’s home on the day of their death to ensure the security of their home and possessions.
On your visit, try to find any paperwork that relates to the insurance of the property and its contents. You will need to get in contact with the insurers, tell them about the death and make sure that there is adequate home and contents cover in place.
Useful tip: As with all conversations around dealing with the matters of a deceased person, make sure you keep a note of your conversation and put it with the papers relating to the insurance. These papers then need to be handed over to the executors or their solicitors as soon as possible.
Please make sure that you leave all their possessions in the property so that it is easier for inheritance tax valuers to get an idea of the person’s property. If there are very valuable items that you believe are not adequately insured, consider moving them to a more secure place. We recommend that you consult the executors or close relatives of the person who has died or the person’s solicitors before you do this.
If you know that the person who has died had a gun licence and kept firearms at the property, report the death to the police so that they can make arrangements for the guns to be kept safely.
When leaving, make sure that you secure the property as you would your own home if you were going away for a while. For example, removing perishable food items, locking all doors and windows, stopping deliveries of papers and milk and moving valuable items so that passers-by cannot easily see them.
If the person had a pet, make temporary arrangements for it to be looked after by family or friends or through an animal rescue charity.
Telling the executors about the death
If the person who has died left a will which does not appoint you as an executor, but you know the people who are appointed executors, make sure they know about the death. You and the executors can then decide who is to register the death, if this has not already been done. You can also decide who will arrange the funeral.
If you have registered the death and obtained copy death certificates but you are not an executor, hand the copy certificates over to the executors or to their solicitors.
Register the death
When someone dies, a doctor issues a medical certificate which states the cause of death. The death then needs to be recorded formally on the register for births, deaths and marriages.
When should a death be registered?
It must be registered within five days after the date of the death.
Who can register the death?
If the death was in hospital or in a private home (including a nursing or residential home), the following people can register the death:
- A relative
- Someone who was present at the death but who is not a relative
- Someone representing the ‘occupier’ of the building where the death occurred. For example, the warden of a block of sheltered flats/ the manager of a residential home
- An official from the hospital
- Anyone who has taken responsibility for arranging the funeral
If the death was not in a public building or a private home, the following people can register it:
- A relative
- Anyone present at the death
- Anyone who has taken responsibility for arranging the funeral
A relative should, if possible, register the death but the registrar allows non-relatives if no relative is available.
Where do I register the death?
The death must be registered at the register office for births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships for the district where the person died.
If you do not know where this is, contact the local authority or visit its website or the government website.
Some register offices will require you to make an appointment. We advise that you always ring the register office in advance of going.
What do I need to take when registering a death?
When visiting the register office to declare the death of a person, you will need to take certain information with you, so make sure that you have obtained this before attending.
- The medical certificate from the doctor
- The following information:
- Date and place of death
- Full name of the person who has died including any former names
- Last address
- Name, date of birth and occupation of the person’s spouse or civil partner (whether living or dead)
- Information about any state benefits the person was receiving
The registrar will issue an official copy of the register. This is called a certified copy death certificate. It is issued after the person registering the death signs the register.
You may need several copies of these as you will need to send them out to banks, building sites and other organisations when giving notice of their death as the estate is being managed.
You can obtain any number of certified copy death certificates. These are available at cost (the price varies from one local authority to another), though you can claim back these expenses from the estate in due course.
You will need to have an idea of how many copies you need in advance. You can roughly work this out if you know how many institutions are required to know about the death such as how many bank accounts they own, and how many pensions they had.
Useful tip: It is advisable to obtain a couple more death certificates than you initially think you may require.
Certificate for burial or cremation
The registrar also issues a certificate for burial or cremation. Give this to the funeral director who is making the funeral arrangements.
Form relating to social security benefits
The registrar will give you a form (form BD8) to complete. This is used to tell the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of the death so that it can deal with the pensions and benefits arrangements of the person who has died.
You can complete this form yourself. Alternatively, ask either the personal representatives or their solicitors to complete it and send it to the DWP.
What if the death is reported to the coroner?
If the death is reported to the coroner and the coroner is satisfied that the death is natural, they will notify the registrar and the death is registered in the usual way.
However, if the coroner decides that an inquest is necessary, the registrar cannot issue a death certificate or a certificate for cremation. Instead, they normally issue a burial or cremation certificate, enabling the funeral to go ahead before the inquest is held. The coroner can also issue an interim death certificate. This can be used to give notice of the death until a final death certificate is issued after the inquest.
Unexpected deaths are reported to the coroner, sometimes by the police, but usually by the doctor who was called when the person died.
A death is regarded as unexpected in any of the following circumstances:
- The person who has died was not seen by a doctor in the 14 days before death
- The doctor does not know the cause of death and so cannot issue a medical certificate
- The person died within 24 hours of being admitted to hospital or during an operation
When a death is reported to the coroner, the coroner usually arranges for a post-mortem. This normally establishes the cause of death. If the death is from natural causes, it can be registered, and the funeral can go ahead.
There is an inquest only if the cause of death is in doubt, even after the post-mortem, or the post-mortem shows that death was not from natural causes. Even if there is to be an inquest, the coroner usually allows the funeral to be held after the post-mortem.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 reformed the law on the coroner system. Most of the changes to the coroner system applied from June 2013. There were also changes to the law on registering and certifying deaths.
Arranging the funeral and dealing with the will
When do you need the will?
It is not essential to find the will before the funeral. However, it is best to find it (or at least a copy) as soon as possible after the death. This is because:
- The person who has died may have said in the will what kind of funeral they wanted
- The administration of the estate goes more smoothly if the executors are involved from the outset
People who get solicitors to make their wills for them often keep a copy of it with their important papers. The original is usually kept by the solicitors’ firm. The address and phone number of the firm is often on the cover of the copy will.
If you cannot find a will (or a copy) in the home of the person who has died, ask the person’s bank and their solicitors if they know where it is.
You can also conduct a Certainty Will Search which is used by a number of law firms to register wills and access Certainty’s will-finding services.
If you still cannot find it, contact any solicitor who works in the areas of wills and probate. The solicitor can help with further searches for the will and explain what happens to the property of an individual who dies without leaving one.
When this happens, administrators are appointed. They are usually close relatives of the person who has died and they have authority to deal with the estate in a similar way to executors.
Do you have a right to see the will?
Only the executors appointed in a will are entitled to see it before probate is granted. If you are not an executor, the solicitors of the person who has died or the person’s bank (if it has the will) cannot allow you to see it or send you a copy of it, unless the executors agree.
However, they can tell you who the executors are. They can also let you know what the will, or a note kept with it, says about the kind of funeral the person wanted.
What kind of funeral did the person who has died want?
Many people leave notes saying what kind of funeral they would like, or they express their wishes in their wills.
You are not legally obliged to follow the wishes of a person who has died but usually relatives and friends prefer to do so.
Useful tip: It can be distressing to discover after the funeral that it was not arranged as the person wished, so look as soon as possible for a note and for the will.
Medical research and organ donation
If you know that the person who has died wanted to leave their body for medical research, look for the relevant consent form.
The form may be stored with the person’s important papers or with their will. The form will have details of the relevant research institution. Contact it and follow the procedure it recommends.
The person who has died may have donated their organs for transplant. Donated organs have to be removed within 48 hours of the death and would-be donors normally make their request by signing the NHS Organ Donor Register. Speak to the doctor who was looking after the person at the time of death about this.
Arranging the funeral and paying the funeral expenses
When you have confirmed that the body is to be buried or cremated rather than given for medical research, give the certificate for burial or cremation to the funeral director.
The funeral director will discuss the arrangements with you and guide you through the process leading up to the funeral and the burial or cremation.
Who pays for the funeral of a friend or relative?
By taking on the responsibility for arranging the funeral, you are also taking on the responsibility of paying for it. You will eventually be able to reimburse yourself from the estate of the person who has died, if there is enough money to cover the funeral expenses.
You, or other family members, may be willing to pay the funeral expenses, on the basis that you will claim repayment from the estate later.
Alternatively, there are other ways of paying for the funeral:
- Look through the papers of the person who has died for anything relating to a pre-paid funeral plan. If you find that the person subscribed to a plan, contact the provider and follow the procedure it recommends.
- A bank where the person who has died had an account may be prepared to release money from the account. The bank ‘freezes’ an account when it learns about the account-holder’s death, making no further payments out. However, it usually makes an exception for funeral expenses. Contact the bank to ask whether it will release money to pay for the funeral.
- Look through the papers of the person who has died for anything relating to life insurance or pensions, and contact the providers. If the person had a job at the time of the death, contact the employer’s HR department. Lump sum payments can often be made from life insurance policies and pension schemes very soon after a death. However, you should, if possible, consult the solicitors advising the personal representatives before using lump sums of this type to pay funeral expenses. This is because there may be a more tax-efficient way to use the money.
- If you are arranging a funeral for a partner or close relative and you are on a low income, you may be able to get a funeral payment from the Social Fund. You might have to repay some or all of it from the estate of the person who has died. For more information, visit the government website.
Telling people about the death
You may need to contact the solicitors of the person who has died soon after the death to ask if they have the will and to find out who the executors are.
If there is a will
The executors appointed in a will do not necessarily need a solicitor to help them deal with the estate. They can ask the solicitors holding the will to send it to them and can deal with the estate themselves.
If the property passing under the will is uncomplicated and the will itself is straightforward and was prepared by a solicitor, then executors may find it quite easy to go ahead without legal advice. However, you need a business-like approach and quite a lot of time to deal with even a simple estate.
If the executors decide to take legal advice, they can either go to the solicitors who prepared the will or to a different firm. If they have not contacted the solicitor before the funeral, they should do so soon afterwards, and arrange a meeting.
If there is no will
If the person who has died seems not to have left a will, then one or more of the person’s closest relatives (wife, husband or civil partner, father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter) should contact a solicitor for advice. The solicitor can help with further searches for the will and explain what to do if the person is intestate. You can also use the Certainty Will Search in case a will has been registered by a solicitor. The Probate Registry can also provide guidance.
Find out more about how the team at Brachers can help in these circumstances.
Bank or building society
Tell the bank or building society where the person who has died had a current account about the death.
Private landlord or local authority
If the person who has died was a tenant living in rented accommodation, tell the landlord or local authority about the death.
If the accommodation was shared and the remaining occupant was not a co-tenant but wants to stay in the property, the landlord may be willing to make a new rental agreement with the remaining occupant. You may find it helpful to get guidance from a solicitor or the Citizen’s Advice before approaching the landlord.
If the person who has died was in employment at the time of the death, tell the employer’s HR department about the death. It is best to do this soon after the death to speed up the process of paying out any salary due to the estate and lump sums from a pension scheme.
Contact the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) to cancel the driving licence of the person who has died and to request that the registration details of his or her car are amended. Refer to the government website or phone the DVLA for further information about this.
If anyone is going to drive a car that belonged to the person who has died, check that they are adequately insured.
HM Passport Office
Look for the passport of the person who has died and return it to the HM Passport Office so that it can be cancelled.
Utility companies and other service providers
You can skip this section if the person who has died lived in a residential or nursing home and no longer had a private home.
The providers of services to the home must be told about the death. For example:
- Utility companies supplying gas, electricity and water
- Broadband, phone and satellite TV providers
- The Television Licensing Authority
- The local Council Tax authority
- Suppliers of other regular services, such as gardening and cleaning
If the suppliers addressed their bills to the person who has died, tell them about the death and, where appropriate, arrange for them to take meter readings as close to the death as possible.
If someone else is going to go on living in the property, contact the supplier to arrange for the account to be transferred into that person’s name, if they want to go on receiving the service. Alternatively, arrange to switch to another supplier.
Useful tip: remember that direct debits from a bank or building society account of a person who has died, including direct debits to utility suppliers, are cancelled when the bank or building society hears about the death.
If the person who has died was living alone in a private home, contact the Royal Mail to arrange for post to be redirected. Redirecting to one of the personal representatives is best, since the post is likely to include information about the person’s assets and debts.
Bank accounts and bills
If you had a joint bank or building society account with the person who has died, then from the time of the death you automatically own the money in the account. The account is not ‘frozen’ after the death and you do not need a grant of probate or any authority from the personal representatives to access it. You should, however, tell the bank about the death of the other account holder.
Bank accounts and other assets in the sole name of the person who has died are usually ‘frozen’ from the death until the personal representatives obtain a grant of probate or letters of administration.
If the person who has died paid household bills, then the other members of the household may be worried about how to manage between the death and the grant. There are various ways of dealing with this problem.
- If a member of the household had a joint account with the person who has died, that account can be used to pay bills. See the section above on joint accounts.
- It may be possible to borrow from a family member or from the bank.
- If the person who has died had life insurance or was a member of a pension scheme, a lump sum may be payable soon after the death.
It is a good idea to contact a solicitor or Citizen’s Advice for advice on the different options.
If you require further support, please contact our Probate and Estate Administration to team to arrange a free 30-minute consultation to talk about your situation. We will be able to advise you on the next steps.
This content is correct at time of publication
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