What Happens to a House after the Owner Dies?

13 April 2018

When someone passes away it is likely that their home will be the most valuable item left in their estate. What happens to the property is dependent on how the deceased owned it, and what the will states should happen (if there is one). If the deceased did not leave a will then what happens to the house is normally decided by the beneficiaries of the estate.

Is the Property Registered at the Land Registry?

If the legal title for the home has been registered with the Land Registry, then the title will be obtainable from the Land Registry website. This will show how the deceased owned the property. If the legal title is not registered then no title document will be held by the Land Registry and you should try to locate the original Title Deeds.

How Was the Property Owned?

In England and Wales, the legal ownership of a house can take several different forms, depending on whether it is owned by the deceased on their own or owned jointly with another person.

Joint Ownership – Joint Tenants

There are two ways in which a property can be owned jointly with another person. The simplest form is where the property was held as joint tenants with somebody else. This will often be the deceased’s spouse or civil partner. In these circumstances, neither person owns an identifiable share in the property. Like a joint bank account, the ownership of this property passes directly to the surviving owner upon death.

A grant of probate is not required for this. If the title for the house was registered with the Land Registry then a ‘death of a joint partner’ form can be completed, to update the property title to show just the name of the surviving owner. If the house was not registered then an original death certificate should be stored with the title deeds for the property.

Joint Ownership – Tenants in Common

Another form of legal joint ownership is for a house to be held as tenants in common. In this case each owner has a specific share in the value of the property that belongs to them. Often this half-and-half, but can be disproportionate.

Holding a share in property as tenants in common is quite a complex arrangement. Normally where this is the case the deceased would have also left a will that states what is to happen with their share of the property. If they have not left a will, then their share of the property would form part of their estate, to be passed on in line with inheritance laws called the rules of intestacy.

It is important to note with property held as tenants in common, although the deceased’s estate may include a share of the property, if the other owner named in the title deeds is still alive, they have legal rights to the property. Only they can decide if the property is to be sold or if a new legal owner is to be added to the property title.

Sole Ownership

The final form of ownership is Sole Tenant. This is where the person that has died was the only owner of the house. It is likely that they will have passed away leaving the house unoccupied. Special care should be taken here to make sure that the property remains insured and any active insurance policy is not invalidated by the property being left unoccupied.

If There Is a Will

What should happen to the house is dependent on whether the deceased left a will and if this has any directions as to what should be done with the house. The will may state that the house is to be left as a specific gift to one or more of the beneficiaries. The house legally passes to the beneficiaries through the process of an ‘assent’. The grant of probate needs to be obtained before an assent can be completed.

If the deceased did not leave any specific instructions in their will, then what should be done with the house is up to the executor/s of the estate and the beneficiaries. They can choose to deal with the property in the same way as if there was no will (aside from the rules of intestacy), as outlined below.

If There Is No Will

If there is no will, then the rules of intestacy will come into play. Often the house will be sold and the profits of the sale divided between the beneficiaries in line with the rest of the deceased’s estate.

The house can be put on the market and a sale agreed upon but a grant of probate must be obtained before the legal process of selling the property can be concluded. Most estate agents will be aware of this requirement for the sale of properties belonging to the Estate of someone who has passed away.

Alternatively, one of the beneficiaries might want to receive the house as their inheritance. In such a case this needs to be agreed with any other beneficiaries of the estate. The value of the property then counts towards the share of the Estate that beneficiary was due to inherit.

When there is no wwill, then the spouse or civil partner of the deceased has right of first refusal to receive the house as their inheritance.

Co-op Legal Services has over 600 staff working in different businesses with offices in Manchester, Bristol, Stratford-upon-Avon, Sheffield and London.

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