This is one of the first questions I am asked when speaking with a deceased person’s loved ones, who take the very brave first step of calling Russell-Cooke's private client department in the first hours or days following death.

The first days of bereavement are consumed by a spectrum of wide-ranging emotions and if you find yourself in the position of taking on a new, sometimes unexpected role of acting as your friend or family member’s executor on top of it all, it is important to have someone on your side who knows how to navigate the legal path smoothly. In a nutshell, an executor is a person appointed in the will, who takes responsibility for the property and other assets of the deceased person from the moment they pass away. Sometimes they are known as the administrator (if there was no will) or personal representative. Often the executor will register the death and organise the funeral but will be responsible for valuing the assets and liabilities in the estate, reporting the values to HMRC, paying Inheritance Tax, obtaining a Grant of Probate and administering the will. The executor becomes our client and is tasked with making important decisions about the administration of their friend or family member's estate.

One of the additional difficulties caused by the pandemic is that many of the processes and procedures have changed beyond recognition. In addition, many of my clients have been unable to travel as freely to attend to estate administration matters (due to shielding) and in some instances have themselves been locked down overseas, unable to return to the UK. Organisations and companies that an executor would deal with in person have had to adopt different ways of working overnight and we have had to do the same.

The five practical steps that you, as executor or likely executor can take following a person’s death are as follows:

  1. Registration of death and issue of the death certificate. It is important to note that there is a legal requirement to register the death within five days of the date of death. There are strict categories of person who can register the death depending on where the death took place. Sometimes the coroner or police may need to become involved, if the death was unexpected. This process can take a little while to conclude but the coroner will usually issue an interim death certificate, until the cause of death can be confirmed. The Government's registration of death process can be found online. During the pandemic, registration appointments have been conducted by telephone.
  2. Complete the Tell Us Once service when registering the death. This is a way of letting a number of government departments know that someone has died by making one central notification. This will be explained to you when you attend your appointment with the registrar.
  3. Locate the will. In order to confirm what, if any, documents (including a will) we are holding for a client of ours, we must have sight of the death certificate and identity documents for the executor. This is to protect the confidentiality of our client. Once we have seen the required documents, we will confirm the documents we are holding and release a copy of the latest will to the executor, who is the only person entitled to see the will. It is important to note that even where we are holding a will, it may not in fact be the last will that the deceased person made. We can assist you with the steps you need to take to work this out. If you are holding a will made by another firm, we can ask for the original will to be released to us. If there is no will, we can also advise close family members who are entitled to act as the administrator of the estate under the intestacy rules.
  4. Organise the funeral. At the same time as issuing the death certificate, the registrar will also issue a certificate for burial or cremation, which you will then need to pass on to the funeral director. The deceased person may have made a funeral plan and so it is important to conduct a search of the papers at home to check. Otherwise the funeral director will discuss and plan the arrangements for the funeral with you. Look for an address book, Christmas card list or birthday book to help you determine who to inform or consider placing a notice in the local newspaper. It may be possible for you or other family members to pay for the funeral, with reimbursement to follow from estate funds in due course. However, it may also be possible for the deceased’s bank to pay the funeral invoice directly from the deceased’s bank account balances (provided that they are in credit). We can assist you with this process and help with funeral arrangements.
  5. The deceased’s home. It is important to ensure that the home and possessions of the deceased person are secure as soon as possible, and you should take the precautions that you would with your own home. This may include locating all keys, ensuring all doors and windows, garages and garden gates are locked, stopping all deliveries of milk and newspapers and moving valuable items to a discrete location within the property. When you attend the deceased's home for the first time following the death, it is important that you alert the insurance provider for the property so that the company can note the change to cover, particularly if the property will now be vacant. The insurance company will advise you how frequently the property needs to be checked and if there are any other conditions of ongoing cover such as maintaining the temperature of the property and the mains water supply. Keep all of these details to hand to pass to us. If the deceased person had a pet, it is of course important to make temporary arrangements for the care of the animal, for example to place within the care of family or friends or with an animal welfare charity being mindful that the deceased person may have made provision for their pets in their will.
  6. The sixth tip is of course, please call us. Our team of solicitors is here to guide you through each stage of the process.