'After we had been given a DIY guide to probate by the High Court, it was easy'

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The Independent Online
I Have been asked to be an executor of a will twice in my life. The first was for my mother's will and the second, more recently, for my ex-husband's.

Both events were extremely painful, given the natural process of bereavement. However, putting emotions aside, it is worth noting the difference between both experiences.

In the case of my mother's will, I gave over the responsibility of applying for probate, organising valuations, paying debts and monies, to a solicitor.

I noted, at the end of a lengthy process which took well over a year, that the solicitor seemed to come out almost as well financially as those to whom my mother had left her estate.

At the time of my ex-husband Bill's death in Belfast, I was thinking more clearly. What if applying for probate was something a lay person could do?

I discussed this with my two co-executors. My daughter, Tina, was keen. Being a strong, capable woman she had no hesitation. Bill's cousin, Ivan, was more cautious, but agreed to support our decision.

Tina and I had no idea how to start. When in doubt, we thought, take advice from the Citizens' Advice Bureau. The young woman in the CAB felt we should perhaps employ a solicitor. She eventually suggested that we should inquire at the Social Security office.

There, a smart, eager-to-please young man also felt our best recourse was a solicitor. He then consulted more experienced workers "upstairs" but the same advice came down.

Eventually, a phone call to the local Law Centre revealed that we needed to be at the High Court. We arrived, feeling weary and harassed, and were given a booklet with a step-by-step guide to a DIY probate application. From there it was easy.

We returned home and rummaged in a tin, Bill's filing system. There, we found mountains of bills and debts, various bank accounts, building society books, ancient log books and insurance policies. I sent off dozens of letters to discover which were relevant and which were defunct. Surprisingly, all the interested parties replied almost by return, and we soon built up a picture of Bill's assets and debts.

Valuation of the property was more fraught. We enlisted an estate agent, who gave us a written valuation for the probate office.

The probate office itself was helpful, suggesting that most people overestimate the value of possessions. The office indicated that it would accept an estimate of the value of Bill's possessions if auctioned.

We decided that the old and crumbly caravan that had sat for years amongst the nettles in the adjoining paddock, had no value, and therefore did not include it in our reckoning. Likewise, we felt the ancient bed linen in the airing cupboard, the odd ornament and various miscellaneous items were more of a liability than anything. After much deliberation, we came to what we felt was a fair overall estimate.

Then there was the trip to the bank for a photocopy of the deeds, the gathering up of a death certificate and a bill from the funeral director, the original will and all the various documents listed in our DIY guide.

Finally, we were ready for the interview with the probate office.

For ease of purpose, we were told, to be granted probate it helps if the estate is valued at less than pounds 145,000 at the initial formal interview. Otherwise one must attend a second meeting to "swear the papers". If it is over that sum, the tax people also get involved and a more detailed investigation is made.

We were lucky - the estate proved relatively modest. At this juncture I bowed out as I felt I had done enough. Tina and Ivan took over.

The interview at the probate office, by all accounts, was friendly. There were cups of tea and biscuits and much encouragement. The officers scrutinised the papers and made helpful suggestions. All this went on in Belfast where the environment may be more informal.

Probate was granted a couple of weeks later and the division of property and possessions could begin. We had saved the estate a considerable sum by doing it ourselves and the process was relatively painless.

The most difficult part was trying to keep family and friends from tearing each other and the possessions asunder before the deliberations had reached a conclusion - part of the suffering and intense emotion after bereavement.

q Useful reading: 'After a Death - Problems and Sensible Solutions', by Shelagh Clayton, available from bookshops after 24 October (price pounds 10.99); 'How To Obtain Probate', call 0171-936 6939; 'What To Do After a Death' (D49), available from DSS offices; 'What Happens When Someone Dies' (IR45), available from the Inland Revenue.