Applying for probate can be a complicated process, particularly if you have never had to do it before. If you don’t seek expert advice, there are some common mistakes that are often made. These mistakes can cause probate to take much longer than it needs to, making it more costly, and more stressful.
The first mistake that often occurs is that people apply for probate in the wrong country. The only place to apply for probate is in the country where the person was living before they died. Many people applying for probate apply in the country where the person was when they died, rather than their country of residence. This is not always the same place, and if you are unsure it is best to check.
The forms required can also be confusing and lead to mistakes. The forms can be found online, but although they are easy to find, they are not always that easy to fill in. Every part of the form needs to be completed, and that might require some research because all the names of the person need to be entered. Those names much match the ones on the will. This might relate to middle names, or perhaps maiden names. All the information much be correct and the same on all the forms.
Estate fees are the last area where big errors can be made. There is a special formula that needs to be used to calculate the fees and taxes due. Mistakes here can mean big problems further on, which is why hiring an expert to help at this point can save you a lot of trouble in the long term.
Signing the wrong will. It sounds like a mistake that could never happen, but in reality it does. It is essential that the testator pays rigorous attention to what they are doing and specifically what they are signing. Witnesses also need to look at the documents. Their presence isn’t enough; they need to know exactly what they are witnessing, especially if there is some detail that they missed which becomes part of a contestation of the will!
If you think that this doesn’t happen, that it isn’t possible, then the case of Marley v Rawlings might change your mind.
Mr and Mrs Rawlings prepared their wills at the same time. They each left their estate to their surviving spouse, with other beneficiaries inheriting part of the estate if their spouse had already died. One of these beneficiaries was a Mr Marley who, although not related to the couple, was regarded as a member of the family.
Unfortunately, what no one, including the solicitor and the witnesses, noticed at the time, and for some time afterwards, was that Mr Rawlings had signed Mrs Rawlings’ will, and vice versa.
When Mrs Rawlings died, her part of the estate went straight to Mr Rawlings without any problems. The mistake regarding the signature was not picked up at that point. It wasn’t, in fact, until Mr Rawlings also died that the error was found.
What did it mean?
In short, it meant that Mr Rawlings’ will was made invalid, which in turn meant that his estate became subject to intestacy rules. Mr Marley, therefore, was no longer able to inherit his share, since he was not a blood relation of Mr Rawlings.
It was touch and go as to whether the will would be able to be rectified when Mr Marley contested it. This was not purely a clerical error, such as a typo, which would have been easy to fix. This was a will that was, in reality, unsigned, at least by the person to whom it related. In the end, the judge found that, since Mr Rawlings’ intentions were clear, the will could be changed to reflect that, and therefore Mr Marley could inherit his share.
The court case took time, money, and energy to resolve, all of which could have been avoided if the solicitor, the witnesses, and the testators themselves had taken the time to read what was being signed.
Discovering more about your family tree, finding out more about where you come from, can be a rewarding and fascinating hobby, but if you have made just one small mistake somewhere down the line and end up spending hours – days, even weeks – researching the wrong people… it can be frustrating to say the least. So how can you ensure that the people you are looking into really are the right ones?
There are a few tips that will help you.
Firstly, don’t be tempted to miss anyone out or skip generations. Although not everyone in your family is going to be the most interesting of people, if you skip past them, you might take a wrong turn and if you do that, it can be hard to get back on track. The same is true if you think you already know everything about one particular person. This usually happens when it comes to parents or grandparents. But if you fail to do the research that you would do for other generations just because you think you know the people you are looking into, you might miss out on a major part of their lives, which could lead to additional family that you didn’t realise existed.
Next, don’t assume that a family title means the same then as it does now. Calling someone a cousin, aunt, uncle, or even using the names ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ might not actually mean that really are a cousin, aunt, uncle, or related in any way. These terms were used much more loosely centuries ago. For example, if there were two men of the same name in a village, they might have been designated junior and senior, even if they weren’t actually related. Don’t assume that people were married either, just because they have the same name. If a woman was living in a house with a man, she may have been his sister-in-law, or even a family friend. Dig deeper to be sure.
Thirdly, don’t forget to note down where you found your information. Write down the website, book details, even microfilm and newspaper dates. Make sure you know where the information came from. This is especially important if you come across seemingly conflicting information.
Next, make sure that what you’re writing down really makes sense. If not, you may have made an error somewhere along the line, and it’s best to find that out sooner rather than later. Common mistakes that might go unnoticed at first could be that someone’s wedding takes place just a few years after they were born, or that a woman’s child was born after their mother had died! Check the dates to ensure that nothing odd has happened.
The more organised you are in your research, the easier it will be – and the fewer mistakes you are likely to make. Create or find a filing system that allows you to save your work in the best way for you, depending on how you do your research. Make sure that you have somewhere to store hard copies of your research too, and not just digital copies on your computer.
Just because something has been published, that doesn’t make it true. You should always double check any ‘facts’ that you find, and verify any research that has been done previously. This is also important for when someone else has already started your family tree, and you are completing it. Check their work before starting your own.
Finally, DNA can be a really useful tool. Although your DNA won’t be able to give you a direct link back to everyone in your family tree, it will be able to offer you some insight into where you can from, and show you were you should be looking – literally – for your ancestors.
It is a rare event for someone to be an executor more than once or twice in their lives, and because of this no lay person ever becomes an expert in executing a will. Why should they when it is such a one off event? This does mean, however, that probate can take longer than it might otherwise have done because the person executing the will has no idea where to start. It could also mean that mistakes are made.
One of the most common mistakes is for the executor to underestimate just how much time this role will take. It is never a quick job, and with more complicated estates it can be almost like a full time job. Pre-planning can help ease the burden slightly, but it should never be assumed that being an executor is something that can just be worked on around other commitments, or, if that is the way it will need to be done then the executor will need to keep everyone informed of their progress.
Another mistake that is often made is that the executor does not keep clear records of the work they have done as they do it. This can be a problem when someone asks about how the job is progressing. Keeping a diary is the best way to keep on top of things, and know when to contact whom about what. It is a good idea to open a new, separate bank account where all the money from the deceased’s estate can be paid out of when required.
Executors sometimes also pay beneficiaries too early. If this is done – perhaps due to pressure on the executor from the beneficiaries – then it can cause problems later on when other bills need to be paid and the money has already gone. Executors also need to ask for proof of ownership of property etc, rather than simply taking things on trust. Never let a family member remove something from the estate until you have proof that they are allowed to do so.
It is always best to seek expert advice if anything confusing or out of the ordinary is found in a will that is being executed.
A lot of people are very interested in their family trees, and many of them try to discover more about it. Although there are professional genealogists who are able to do this work, for some the amateur thrill of doing it themselves is tempting. But often mistakes are made which make the process harder than it needs to be.
Firstly, it is important to talk to your family about what you are doing. They may come up with ideas that you hadn’t thought of, or remind you of family members you had neglected to include. No one has a better inside into the ins and outs, the comings and goings, of your family than your family. They can help you get started, and answer questions if and when you get stuck.
Another mistake that people make is to think that they will find all the answers online. Although there is much more information online than ever before, the majority of genealogy information is actually found offline. And bear in mind that some of the ones found online might not be accurate, or even true at all. It could just be a story that someone has written down and that people are taking as fact.
Although it is a nice idea that you might be related to someone famous, or to royalty, it’s unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely. So don’t get too caught up in trying to work out which royal lineage is yours. Just follow the facts and don’t try to make them bend to what you want them to say.
There will come a point when you will have to stop. When you have gone as far as you can. That point will probably be – if you are very lucky, that is – around the beginning of the 1300s. This is when surnames were first introduced. Before that time it will just be first names, and this makes tracing family members all but impossible. But if you’ve made it back to 1300 or so then congratulations – that’s quite a feat!
It is also extremely important to check all of your facts. It would waste an enormous amount of time if you found that you had been tracing the wrong family line for months because of a spelling mistake three hundred years in the other direction. Check everything and that should keep you on the right path.