A will is a legal document that sets out what you want to happen to your money and other possessions after your death. It names the executors and beneficiaries. Executors are the people you choose to carry out the instructions in the will, and beneficiaries are the people or organisations you want to give things to. If you have few possessions or want to leave everything to one person, executing your will should be straightforward. But if you have a large estate, with different types of asset and lots of beneficiaries, it can be a long, complicated process.
Executor as trustee
The executor of a will has to sort out all the property (the “estate”) of the person who died. That includes collecting it together, keeping it safe, and distributing it to the beneficiaries according to the terms of the will. In this sense, the executor acts as the trustee of the estate, being trusted to look after it on others' behalf. In a second sense, the will may create a long-term “testamentary” trust to safeguard assets until the beneficiaries can take over. Until then, trustees run the trust. For example, the trust may hold money for the decedent’s children until they are old enough to take responsibility for it. The will may name the executor as a trustee. If not, after gaining probate the executor hands over the trust to other trustees, who may be better qualified to handle it.
Probate means proving a will is legally valid. A court must grant probate before the executors can hand out any legacies. Until probate is granted, beneficiaries have no automatic right to see the will or even be told about it, although executors usually let them know. After probate, however, executors have a duty to tell all the beneficiaries what interest they have in the will, and let them see the will and estate accounts on request.
Getting probate can take weeks or months, depending how straightforward or complex the case is. It is common to wait six months for probate, then another five or six before the payments are sent out. Executors have to pay debts and taxes out of the estate before they can distribute legacies. According to HM Revenue and Customs, they have up to a year to settle the payments. However, this is not a strict requirement and it can take longer if there are legal complications.
Dealing with delay
Beneficiaries can ask the executors to show them a copy of the will. If the executors refuse, the probate registry can supply copies once probate has been granted. Beneficiaries are entitled to a full report and accounts on how the estate has been administered since the death. If the executor fails to supply these, or seems to be delaying the payout unreasonably, beneficiaries can apply to court to speed up the process.