What happens to bank accounts after death?

Dealing with the death of a loved one is always going to be hard. Here we explain what happens to their bank accounts and what steps you need to take to get their financial affairs in order.

When someone dies, it is illegal to access their bank accounts unless you are a joint account holder on that particular account.

How to manage the finances of a deceased person

Aside from arranging the funeral, there are a number of steps you need to take before you can deal with the deceased’s financial affairs:

  1. Register the death
  2. Apply for probate
  3. Remember inheritance tax!
  4. Contact banks, utility companies and insurers

1. Register the death

When someone dies, you should register the death within five days.

This is the only way to get a death certificate which you must have in order to access bank accounts of the person who died.

2. Apply for probate

If the deceased left a will, they should have named an executor or administrator who will be in charge of handling the estate – that’s property, savings and belongings.

Once the executor has the original copies of the will and the death certificate (no photocopies allowed), they can apply for probate – the legal right to deal with the deceased’s estate.

If someone dies without a will, the application process is the same, but you’ll get ‘letters of administration’ rather than a ‘grant of probate’.

3. Remember inheritance tax

You’ll need to estimate the value of the estate and report your findings to HMRC to determine whether or not inheritance tax (IHT) is owed.

IHT won’t be charged if the inheritance is left to a spouse, civil partner, charity, or amateur sports club – otherwise, IHT will apply on any estates valued at over £325,000.

For the 2019/2020 tax year, the minimum tax-free threshold increases to £475,000 if the estate was left to children or grandchildren, including step and adopted children.

It is usually the estate – not you as the executor and/or inheritor – who pays inheritance tax, which is due six months after the death.

4. Contact banks, utility companies and insurers

Now you have the official will, death certificate and grant of probate (or letters of administration if there was no will), you can inform any banks, building societies, utility companies and insurers of the death.

Current and savings accounts

Bank accounts remain open until all the money is retrieved and the account formally closed. However, direct debits and standing orders will be cancelled.

Remember, it is illegal to withdraw money from an open account of someone who has died (unless you are the other person named on a joint account) before you have informed the bank of the death and been granted probate. This is the case even if you need to access some of the money to pay for the funeral.

As the executor, it is down to you withdraw any money and distribute it to the beneficiaries according to the will. A solicitor will be able to help you with the process.

If someone died without leaving a will, rules of intestacy apply.

There is, of course, the real possibility you do not know the details of all the deceased’s bank accounts or that some details have been lost. In that case, there are online tools that can help you discover lost accounts.

Debts

Debts such as mortgages, loans or credit cards are not passed on to the inheritors, but must be paid off before the remainder of the estate is distributed as per the instructions laid out in the will.

If you are unsure of what or how much money is owed, you’ll need to place a notice in The Gazette – the official public record of deceased estates. If you fail to do this and a creditor later comes forward with a claim against the estate, you might personally be liable for the unidentified debt.

Two months and one day after the notice is published and provided no other creditors have come forward, you can distribute the remaining estate amongst the beneficiaries.

Any debts taken out in a joint name become the sole responsibility of the survivor when one of you dies.

Read our guide on joint mortgages

Insurance companies

Any open insurance policies need to be cancelled – remember, unless a claim is made, insurance companies do not pay out, so you will not recoup any payments the deceased made as part of their policies.

However, if they had any kind of life insurance (including mortgage life insurance and PPI) you can make a claim and the policies end.

Pensions

If the deceased was receiving their State Pension before they died, contact the Pension Service to stop the payments.

You may be able to claim their personal or workplace pensions (if they had any), but how much you’re entitled to largely depends on the type of pension they had.

Trusts

If a bank account is held in a lifetime trust, the successor trustee named in the trust document can present the death certificate and a copy of the trust to the bank to take it over.

How to get your affairs in order today

While much of the advice in this article is about how to manage someone else’s finances once they have died, there are several small things you can do for yourself or the person you are caring for now.

Special counsel at Foley & Lardner, Jamil G. Daoud, offers the following tips:

  • Get hard copies of bank statements. Online statements have become the norm for current and savings accounts. Try to obtain detailed records by printing off online statements or requesting paper ones.
  • Consolidate accounts. This might not be possible if the person has created a complicated web of savings accounts, but if there is a savings account here and a current account there, merging them could simplify matters.
  • Add names to individual accounts. Determine exactly how the account is titled while the person is still alive. If you have power of attorney for someone, consider the following steps if your powers allow: Add one or more joint owners to the account; designate one or more payable-on-death beneficiaries for the account; transfer the account to the owner’s revocable trust.
  • Pre-plan your funeral, if you can. One of the main reasons people need quick access to a person’s bank account after they have died is to cover the arrangements. Planning ahead alleviates that stress during an emotional time.
Now read about how much money to save for retirement

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Last updated: 18 April, 2019

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