9 things you need to know as a beneficiary of a will

If someone you love has recently died and you think that you could be named as a beneficiary of their will, you may have some questions about what the next steps are.

Here’s a guide that explains some of the most important things you should know as a beneficiary of a will.

A beneficiary of a will is a person who’ll inherit something when someone else dies and details of their inheritance can be found within the will document. 

As a beneficiary, you may be wondering ‘how soon after death is the will going to be read out to me?’. Historically, a will would be read out to beneficiaries by legal professionals, such as solicitors, soon after someone has died. Although you may still see this happen on TV and in the movies, having a will read is a thing of the past.

1) Wills can be tricky to find

At Farewill, we often speak to friends and family who feel certain that their loved one made a will before they died, but they haven’t been able to find it. 

If you’re  in this situation, here are a few things you could try:

  • A thorough search of your loved one’s property

As well as looking through all the paperwork and filing cabinets, sometimes people store their wills in unusual places, like the loft or the basement, under the floorboards or under the mattress of their bed. 

  • Ask neighbours, family, other friends and the witnesses of the will

They might be able to recall where the will was stored from a conversation they might’ve had. .

  • Check with the bank

Although banks don’t tend to offer their storage facilities to customers as much these days, it’s always worth checking in with them to see if they could be holding any personal documents in safe custody. 

Some banks do offer will writing and executor services and if they did write the will or are named as executors of the will, they might have kept the original document. 

What an executor does

An ‘executor’ is the person or persons who are named in the will. They have the responsibility of administering the estate and making sure that the written wishes of the person who has died are followed. An ‘estate’ is all the money and property someone owned on their death, after the payment of any debts and liabilities.

  • Check with local solicitors

You could try calling around local solicitor practices near where your loved one lived. If they recently moved houses, it might also be worth speaking to firms near their old address. 

  • Carry out a search of the National Will Register, Certainty

It might be that the will was registered with the National Will Register, which is now recommended by many organisations and used by solicitors, the public, charities and financial institutions. You can carry out a search of the register here.

  • Carry out a search of the Probate Registry 

The will might’ve already been sent to the Probate Registry by the executors of the estate and the grant of probate may already have been issued. You can search for wills that have gone through probate here.

2) Having a will read to you is a thing of the past

These days, only the named executors are initially entitled to read the will. You could ask the executors for a copy of the will, but legally they don’t have to give it to you. Any financial institutions, solicitors or other organisations should always ask the executors for permission before sending the will onto anyone else. 

If probate is needed to deal with the estate, once it’s granted by the Court, the will becomes a public document and anyone can apply to the Probate Registry for a copy of it for a small fee. Don’t forget, applying for a probate isn’t always necessary when someone dies. And if a grant of probate isn’t issued by the Court, the will can stay private for as long as the executor wishes. 

What is probate?

Probate (short for 'a grant of probate') is a legal document that shows banks, the Land Registry and other organisations that someone has the authority to deal with someone else’s estate. We’ve written a separate article on what is probate.

If an executor refuses to release a copy of the will to you as a beneficiary, you should think about getting your own independent legal advice. It might be possible for you to apply to the Court to make the executor apply for probate so that the will becomes public. This doesn’t happen very often though, and you may find it more beneficial to try and reach an agreement with the executor through open communications, where possible.

Finding out if probate is needed on an estate can be confusing, so our experts have created a free tool that checks for you. Answer a few questions to understand when probate is required to get started.

3) There aren’t any set rules for when a beneficiary should be notified

There are no set rules in place that say exactly when an executor should notify a beneficiary of their interest in a will. But, it’s thought to be good and common practice for beneficiaries to be notified early on in the estate administration process. 

The estate administration covers the period of time from the date of death to when the final payments to the beneficiaries can be calculated. The process of administering an estate includes closing bank accounts, paying off any debts, selling or transferring the property of the person who has died and paying inheritance to the beneficiaries. 

If the executors are professional companies, like banks or solicitor firms, you can expect them to contact you soon after they’ve been notified of the death and have set up their file for the estate. 

Some solicitors agree to keep beneficiaries updated regularly throughout the estate administration. Others will only get in touch when they’re ready to make payments to beneficiaries from the estate (known as ‘distributions’). Depending on what the assets are in the estate, as a beneficiary you may be asked whether you’d like the assets sold or transferred to you. 

If the executors are not professionals, they’ll still be expected to  contact you to let you know about the death and that you’ve  been named in the will. If you think you might’ve been named as a beneficiary of a will, but you haven’t heard anything and some time has passed since the death, you should consider seeking some legal advice. 

4) There are different categories of beneficiary in a will

Will beneficiaries aren’t all the same. They can be split up into the below categories:

  • Specific - when you’ve been left a particular item in a will that can be identified and distinguished from other things, like a specific piece of jewellery. If this item had been sold or given away before the death, you wouldn’t be able to receive it and you wouldn’t be entitled to a replacement item from your loved one’s estate. 

  • General - when you’ve been left an amount of money or something else which can’t be specifically identified. A general beneficiary will receive their inheritance from the general pool of assets of the estate. For example, you could have been left the sum of £5,000 in a will. This amount can be paid from any of the assets in the estate, which haven’t already been specifically gifted in the will, such as bank accounts, premium bonds, investments etc. 

  • Demonstrative - when you’ve been left a certain gift from a specific source. For example, if you’re entitled to receive “£5,000 from the National Savings and Investments account”. If there isn’t enough money from the specific source when the person dies, you’d be entitled to have the money from the rest of the estate instead. This means you would  then be considered a general beneficiary.

  • Residuary - when you’ve been  left a percentage of the final estate after all the debts and liabilities are paid. 

The different categories of beneficiary can be important. 

If there isn’t enough money in the estate to pay all of the gifts in the will, the law states that there’s a certain order that decides which beneficiaries should lose their inheritance first:

  1. The residuary beneficiaries would lose their right to their inheritance first

  2. Then the general beneficiaries 

  3. And then the specific and demonstrative beneficiaries. 

There’s also a set order that’s followed if the executors are unable to deal with the estate administration. For example, if all the executors had predeceased (died before the person who has died now), the residuary beneficiaries would be first people entitled to apply for probate in their place. 

5) The length of time it takes for a will to be executed can vary

As a beneficiary, you might find it helpful to know how long it will take for the will to be executed. This depends on each individual case. 

Some estates will have complicated assets, like business assets, overseas properties or farmland. These sorts of assets can take a long time to value and deal with. Other estates can be more straightforward, with just a few bank accounts and utility bills to close down. 

The process of getting probate once an application has been submitted to the Probate Registry often takes between 1-3 months. It can then take up to 6 months to close accounts, sell or transfer investments and pay taxes. You can read some further guidance on these timescales at how long does probate take.

If there’s a property in the estate to be sold, it can take up to 12 months or more for the will to be executed. This depends on things like the property market and other factors like the condition and price of the property.

The executor's year

An executor will never be legally forced to pay out to the beneficiaries of a will until one year has passed from the date of death: this is called the ‘executor’s year’.

6) Payments to beneficiaries can be made at different stages

You may be wondering when you can expect to receive your inheritance from the will or, if you’re a residuary beneficiary, when you’ll get the balance of the estate. This all depends on the particular circumstances of the estate. 

Specific beneficiaries will usually receive their items gifted in the will very early on in the process. General and residuary beneficiaries will often need to wait until probate is granted and any debts are paid. 

Sometimes there can be delays to the process. Here are a few of the most common causes of delay: 

  • Executors might disagree on how to administer the estate 

  • Property sale might fall through

  • It might be difficult to locate beneficiaries

  • There may be missing or complicated assets

  • There might be a missing will or missing property title deeds

  • There may be an investigation of the estate by the Department of Work and Pensions

If it’s a relatively straightforward estate with few debts or liabilities and probate isn’t required, you could receive your inheritance within 1-3 months. 

If probate is required, it could take on average between 6-9 months for you to receive your inheritance.

It’s common for residuary beneficiaries to receive their inheritance at different stages. For example, they could receive a partial payment of their inheritance once most of the bank accounts and investments have been closed. 

A final payment could then be made once the property has been sold (if there is one) or once all the remaining expenses have been paid. 

As a beneficiary, it might be possible for you to decide to have shareholdings or property transferred to you. This can happen when  there’s enough other liquid cash available in the estate (for example from banks and building society accounts) to pay off any debts, taxes and expenses as well as paying any other beneficiaries their share of the estate. 

7) Executors have certain duties they need to carry out

An executor of a will has a very important role to play in making sure the wishes of the person who died are followed. We’ve set out the duties of an executor here.

The executor must act in the best interests of the estate at all times. They should keep detailed accounts of all the money coming in and out of the estate. It’s also considered good practice for executors to provide a copy of the final accounts to beneficiaries once the estate administration is completed.

8) Sometimes beneficiaries might get interest on gifts of money

As a rule, gifts of a set amount of money in a will should be paid out within a year of death. If the executor isn't able to pay the legacy within that time, the beneficiaries will be entitled to claim interest.

9) Beneficiaries can decide to change certain aspects of a will after someone has died

As a beneficiary you might want to give some of your inheritance away or change the wording of a will in order to reduce the amount of tax payable. 

You can change a person’s will after their death, as long as any other beneficiaries aren’t left worse off by the changes and agree to the changes you want to make. (source).

A deed of variation is an official document that allows beneficiaries to change who inherits the estate. You can find out more about deeds of variation. Deeds of variation need to be completed within 2 years of the death. We’d recommend that you seek separate legal advice if you’re thinking about preparing a deed of variation as they can be complex. 

Make sure your own will’s done right

Making changes to a will of someone who has died can be a lot of work. If you’re thinking about making your own will and you’d like to make sure it’s done properly, our telephone and online will writing services are quick, simple and stress-free.

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