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What rights does a beneficiary of a will have?

Our People - Andrew Guile
15 November, 2022

A beneficiary of a will or an intestacy has a right to receive their inheritance. While the responsibility for administering the estate and paying out the money lies with the executors, beneficiaries do have legal rights in the UK. These rights include receiving estate accounts (if they are ‘residuary beneficiaries’) and to challenge or remove an executor if, for instance, they are concerned that the executor has been mis-managing or stealing from the estate.

What is a beneficiary of a will?

A beneficiary is someone who is left a gift by another person who has died. This gift will be set out in the Will of the deceased or, if there is no Will, under the Intestacy Rules.

What types of gifts can a beneficiary receive?

Beneficiaries can be left the following types of gift:

  • Specific – this is something identifiable, e.g. my gold wedding ring. If, for whatever reason, that item no longer exists at the date of death, there will be nothing for you to receive. 
  • General – the most common type of general gift is a sum of money, e.g. “I leave my granddaughter, Elizabeth, the sum of £4,000”. As the gift in this example does not specify where the £4,000 should come from, this is paid from any money left in bank accounts or can come from other assets that get sold as part of the estate administration.
  • Demonstrative – in contrast to the general gift (above), a demonstrative gift specifies where the money should come from, e.g. from the sale of shares or national savings certificates. If there isn’t enough money in that source of funds, then the shortfall can come from unspecified sources.
  • Residuary – the ‘residue’ is the remainder of the estate after paying funeral costs, tax, specific, general and demonstrative gifts and is usually then split in shares between relatives (e.g. children of the deceased). A person entitled to a share of the residue or residuary estate is known as a ‘residuary beneficiary’. 

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:

  • Firstly, the residuary beneficiaries lose their gifts (as there is no residue left).
  • Secondly, the general beneficiaries lose their gifts.
  • Then, thirdly, the specific and demonstrative beneficiaries lose theirs.

As you can see, giving a specific or demonstrative gift to someone may make it more likely that they will receive it. However, most people’s main beneficiaries are residuary beneficiaries even though they are the first to lose their gifts if there isn’t enough money in the estate to go around. For this reason, it’s important to review your will at least every 5 years to ensure that the will, the size of your estate and the gifts that you have left still make sense.

Do beneficiaries have the right to inherit?

If you are a named beneficiary in a will to receive a legacy (e.g. a sum of money) or a share of the ‘residuary estate’ (e.g. half of the value of the estate after everything else has been paid out) then you are entitled to receive that money. The executors cannot deny you your inheritance. They must give effect to the terms of the will regardless of what their feelings are about any named beneficiaries. It is also worth noting that executors can also be beneficiaries of a will.

When are payments to beneficiaries made?

So, when do you receive your inheritance? It depends. 

If you are to receive a specific gift (e.g. a piece if jewellery), then the executors may let you have that fairly early in the probate process. However, if it is worth more than £500, the executors may need to have the item valued before they can give it to you. This is because the executors have to report the value of the estate to HMRC and that includes your specific gift.

Other general cash gifts and demonstrative gifts as well as distributing to the residuary beneficiaries will have to wait until after probate has been obtained which will delay paying the beneficiaries of the will.

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 is slow or falls through or there are multiple properties to sell
  • HMRC may query the value of a property passing under the will
  • There are problems locating beneficiaries
  • There are missing or complicated assets
  • A claim is brought against the estate by an excluded beneficiary
  • There is a dispute regarding the validity of the will

In some cases, for example where the estate is small, probate is often not needed. In such a case, you may receive your inheritance within 2-3 months.

If or when probate is required, it might take 6-12 months for you to receive your inheritance provided there are no problems (see above).

Residuary beneficiaries may receive their inheritance in stages, e.g. a portion once gifts, tax etc are all paid and money has been collected in from banks and then the remainder once property has been sold (e.g. a house) all final expenses (e.g. legal fees) have been paid.

Do beneficiaries have a right to information?

At some stage, the executors must inform the beneficiaries and indicate what they are entitled to receive as stated in the will. There is no hard and fast rule as to when executors must notify or contact beneficiaries of a will in the UK. More often than not, an executor of a will may leave it until after they have been granted probate (a court order from the Probate Registry giving them the power to collect in the deceased’s assets with a view to distributing them to the beneficiaries).

The probate process can take 6 – 12 months or more to complete (and can take many years in some cases) such that telling beneficiaries early can sometimes only create frustration at how long it takes for them to receive their inheritance.

It is good practice for the executors to set out to the beneficiaries when they anticipate providing updates on progress and to stick to it.

Do beneficiaries have a right to see the will?

Strictly, no, beneficiaries have no right to demand to see a copy of the will. However, as soon as probate is granted, the will becomes a public document and the beneficiaries can obtain a copy from the Probate Registry (this can easily be done online in a matter of minutes) such that there is very little purpose served by the executors denying beneficiaries access to the will.

Beneficiaries and survivorship

Many wills contain what’s known as a ‘survivorship clause’ which state that a beneficiary must survive the deceased, normally by 28 days, otherwise they are treated as having died before the deceased. This normally means that they do not inherit at all, although the will normally provides for what happens in those circumstances, e.g. their gift or share of the estate goes to their surviving children in equal shares.

Where there is no Will, the rules of intestacy also say that a spouse or civil partner must survive the deceased by 28 days to inherit from their estate.

If a beneficiary survives the deceased by at least 28 days but then dies before receiving their inheritance, their gift or share then forms part of their own estate and will pass under the terms of their will (if there is one) or the rules of intestacy (if there isn’t).

Do beneficiaries have a right to apply for probate or letters of administration?

A beneficiary of a will can apply for probate themselves where no executors named in will are able to apply (e.g. because they pre-deceased the person in question or are ill and/or unwilling to act). Where there is a will, a beneficiary can apply for probate with the will annexed. Where there is no will, i.e. where a person dies ‘intestate’, then any beneficiary can apply for what’s known as ‘letters of administration’ which will give them the powers that executors have under a will, i.e. to collect in the estate assets and distribute them to the beneficiaries under the rules of intestacy.

Do beneficiaries have a right to see estate accounts?

Estate accounts are something that executors should produce at the end of the administration. They show all the money and assets (with their value) coming into the estate and the money paid out, for instance for the funeral, inheritance tax and legacies (e.g. fixed sums of money to named beneficiaries).

If you are a beneficiary that is entitled to receive a fixed legacy, e.g. £10,000, then you do not have a right to see the estate accounts. Only residual beneficiaries, i.e. those beneficiaries receiving the remainder of the estate after expenses and legacies and tax have been paid, are entitled to see (and should expect to receive as a matter of course) the estate accounts. This is because, as residuary beneficiaries, they have a direct interest in knowing what is left and why as this determines what they receive.

Can beneficiaries 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.

Can a beneficiary change a will after someone has died?

Yes, a beneficiary can, in certain circumstances, change a will under which they inherit. A deed of variation can be entered into to vary the terms of the will (or the normal application of the intestacy rules) but only if everyone effected agrees.

For example, for tax reasons, a beneficiary may decide that they want their £10,000 gift re-directed to their two children in equal shares (£5,000 each) they can sign a deed of variation to give effect to that change. If the change that a beneficiary wants impacts other beneficiaries, then the variation will only be possible if all the effected beneficiaries agree.  So long as a deed of variation is executed within two years from the date of death, the will is treated by HMRC for tax purposes as if the variation had always been present.

Can beneficiaries challenge a will?

A beneficiary can challenge a will if they think the will is invalid or if they think they were financially dependent on the deceased and the will does not make adequate financial provision for them. There are many bases under which a will can be challenged as being invalid.

An actual or potential beneficiary can also challenge a will on the basis that they were financially dependent on the deceased and the will does not make adequate financial provision for them. Someone in this category who has been left nothing at all can bring such a claim as can a beneficiary under the will who feels that they have not been left sufficient inheritance.

Can a beneficiary challenge or remove an executor?

Yes, a beneficiary can challenge and/or apply to remove an executor in the following circumstances: –

  • They are being dishonest or reckless with money belonging to the estate
  • They are selling property under the true market value
  • They are trying to buy property from the deceased’s estate for themselves
  • They are paying beneficiaries before settling outstanding debts.

Or, there are general concerns about their honesty (for instance, they may have been convicted of a criminal offence of dishonesty) or are in some manner felt to be mishandling the estate or estate monies.

If a beneficiary is concerned about any of the above issues, they can:

  • Request a full inventory of the estate and/or the accounts
  • Apply to court to remove an executor
  • Apply to court to replace an executor with someone more appropriate
  • Apply to court for the estate to be restored if the executor’s actions have caused a loss in value
  • Bring a compensation claim against the executor(s) for breach of their duties

Challenging and/or removing an executor is not a simple nor easy thing to achieve. You will need to take legal advice if you have concerns along these lines.

If you would like any help or advice on the legal rights of a beneficiary of a will, or any issues relating to probate, please do not hesitate to contact one of specialist Probate Solicitors or get in touch on 020 8492 2290.

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