Usually delegated to a lawyer, the administration of an estate involves identifying and valuing the deceased’s assets, paying any debts and necessary taxes, and finally distributing what’s left to the beneficiaries.


When someone dies, the executors named in their will become their personal representatives and oversee the administration of their estate. However, when there is no will, there can be no executor, so in cases of intestacy the deceased’s personal representative is known as the administrator. The probate court will usually grant letters of administration to the deceased’s next-of-kin, who then becomes the administrator of the estate. Nowadays, “administrator” is generally applied to both sexes, and the feminine “administratrix” is becoming obsolete.


These are possessions that have value, such as a house, land, money and shares.


A beneficiary is someone who inherits from the estate of a deceased person either under the rules of intestacy or because they have been named in a will.


A bequest is a gift of personal property such as shares, money or jewellery left in a will (not to be confused with “devise”, which refers to property in the form of land or buildings).


BMD is a common abbreviation for births, marriages and deaths. In England and Wales these vital events have been officially recorded since 1837. When genealogists mention BMD they are usually referring to the indexes to these records, which are now widely available online. For the history of BMD registration, see The history behind your birth certificate.

Bona vacantia

Bona vacantia is Latin for “ownerless goods” and is the name given to unclaimed estates in England and Wales, which by law pass to the Crown. Outside the Duchies of Lancashire and Cornwall, the Crown’s rights to bona vacantia are included among the hereditary revenues surrendered in return for the Civil List (now the Sovereign Grant), and as such are dealt with by the Treasury Solicitor who acts for the Crown to collect and administer the estates of people who die with no known relatives and without making a will.

Bona Vacantia Division (or BVD)

The Bona Vacantia Division is a sub-organisation of the Government Legal Department. In England and Wales, the BVD is responsible for dealing with unclaimed estates, except within the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall. In Scotland unclaimed estates are dealt with by The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer, and in Northern Ireland they are handled by the Crown Solicitor’s Office for Northern Ireland. The BVD will accept valid claims on an estate within 12 years from the date that administration was completed, although it has been known to accept claims up to 30 years from the date of death.

Bona vacantia list

See unclaimed estates list.


An addition or supplement that explains, alters, cancels or adds to the provisions of a previously drafted will.

Compulsory land registration

The Land Registry was established in 1862 to register the ownership of land and property in England and Wales. To begin with registration was voluntary, but compulsory registration spread. Since 1990, the sale of a property anywhere in England and Wales triggers its compulsory registration. Further triggers for compulsory registration (such as taking out a mortgage) were introduced in 1998.

Court of Protection

In England and Wales, the Court of Protection has jurisdiction over the financial affairs and welfare of people who lack mental capacity to make decisions for themselves. Its powers are defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005

Deed poll

In law, someone’s name is established simply by the fact that they commonly use it. However, any adult can formalise a change of name by writing a deed poll and this allows them to change their name on official documents such as their passport or driver’s licence. A deed poll is a legal document, and while it can be registered or ‘enrolled’ on the official public record there is no legal requirement to do this. For more information see here.


A gift of freehold property left in a will.


This is the final stage of the probate process, when all eligible beneficiaries receive their inheritance. It takes place after the assets of the estate have been valued, when all debts and taxes have been paid, and the entitlement of each potential beneficiary has been calculated.

Enduring power of attorney

In England and Wales, an enduring power of attorney (EPA) is a legal document that allows someone (the donor) to appoint someone else (the attorney) to manage their property, money and financial affairs. EPAs were created by the Enduring Powers of Attorney Act 1985, but were replaced by the property and financial affairs lasting power of attorney on 1 October 2007. Only EPAs made and signed before that date can still be registered with the Court of Protection.


When someone dies without leaving a will, the rules of intestacy are used to determine who is entitled to a share of the estate. These rules set out a clear order of entitlement.


The word “escheat” dates back to the 14th century, when everyone was essentially a tenant of the king. It was used to denote the legal process whereby land returned to the king when a “tenant” died without an heir. Nowadays it means the reversion of property to the Crown, as happens when someone with no known relatives dies without making a will.


A deceased person’s estate is the sum of all the assets they owned, less the debts and taxes they owed.

Execute a will

Despite the similarity between the words ‘executor’ and ‘execute’ they refer to very different functions. A will is executed when the testator and witnesses sign and date it. An executor, on the other hand, ensures that the instructions in the will are followed after the testator’s death.


An executor is someone named in a will to carry out the directions of the will. The executor stands as the deceased’s personal representative and oversees the administration of their estate. When there is no will, there can be no executor, so in cases of intestacy the deceased’s personal representative is known as the administrator. Nowadays, “executor” is generally applied to both sexes, and the feminine “executrix” is becoming obsolete.

Family tree verification

This is a service provided by probate genealogists, who can check the family tree provided by friends or relatives of the deceased to ensure that it is correct and that no eligible beneficiaries have been missed. For more information please see our family tree verification page.

Freedom of Information (FOI) request

As a result of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 anyone can make a written request for information held by a public body such as a local council, state school, government department or health trust. The public body that receives the request is obliged to provide the requested information unless the costs of making it available are too high or the information is exempt for one of the reasons set out in the Act. You can read the government’s guide to making a FOI request here, while responses to many previous requests are available here.


Genealogy is the study of family history, using historical records and interviews to establish who someone’s ancestors were and trace other family relationships between people. Someone who pursues genealogy as a career is known as a professional genealogist.

Government Legal Department

Previously known as the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, the Government Legal Department provides advice and legal services to central government departments and other publicly funded bodies in England and Wales. The department is headed by the Treasury Solicitor (see below) who acts for the Crown to collect and administer the estates of people who die with no known relatives and without making a will.


The term “grant” is used to describe whatever type of grant of representation is issued: a grant of probate (when there is a will) or a grant of letters of administration (when someone has died without making a will). In both cases, the grant is a piece of paper that gives a personal representative the authority to administer the deceased’s estate.

Grant of letters of administration

In England and Wales, this document is the proof of legal authority required by someone dealing with an estate when the deceased person has left no will.

Grant of probate

In England and Wales, this document is the proof of legal authority required by the executor dealing with an estate when the deceased person has left a will.

Grant of representation

In England and Wales, this document is the proof of legal authority required by someone dealing with a deceased person's estate. It’s an umbrella term that covers both a grant of letters of administration (when there is no will) and a grant of probate (when there is a valid will).


A guardian is someone entrusted by law to look after the interests of a child under the age of 18.


Usually referred to as “half-brothers” or “half-sisters”, half-blood siblings share only one parent. By extension, your father’s half blood sister would be your half-blood aunt. In contrast, siblings of the whole or full blood share the same mother and father.


Historically, the term “heir” was used to mean someone who inherits all the property of a deceased person. Nowadays it is used more loosely to denote anyone who inherits a share of an estate. In cases of intestacy, where a beneficiary’s claim lies only in their kinship with the deceased, they are properly known as an “heir at law”.

Heir at law

Someone who inherits a share of an intestate estate is properly called an heir at law. This person must be in some way related to the deceased.

Heir hunter

This term, popularised by the BBC's Heir Hunters programme, has become synonymous in some minds with probate genealogy. However, just as Anglia Research has consistently declined to take part in the television series, we also decline to refer to ourselves as "heir hunters", a phrase that is increasingly associated with newspaper headlines about overcharging and malpractice.

Inheritance tax or IHT

This is a tax on the value of the deceased’s estate at the time of their death and on financially significant gifts made by an individual in the last seven years of their life. The inheritance tax threshold (or nil-rate band) is the amount up to which an estate will have no tax to pay. This changes from year to year. Where the value of an estate exceeds the nil-rate band, only the amount above the nil-rate band is taxed. It is important to remember that inheritance tax is paid from the estate before it is distributed to the beneficiaries. For information about the current inheritance tax threshold and rate, please see the HMRC website


The word “intestacy” is used to describe a situation where someone dies without having made a valid will, and the value of their estate is greater than their debts and funeral expenses.


Used as a noun, “the intestate” refers to someone who has died without leaving a valid will. If someone dies “intestate” it means they have not left a valid will.


The term “issue” refers to someone’s children (genetic or adopted) as well as more distant descendants such as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lasting power of attorney

In England and Wales, a lasting power of attorney (LPA) is a legal document that allows someone (the donor) to appoint one or more people (the attorneys) to make decisions on their behalf if there should come a time when they themselves lack the mental capacity to take care of their own affairs.

Limited power of attorney

When someone grants a limited power of attorney to another person, they appoint them to act on their behalf only on a specific matter, perhaps to sell a property, operate a bank account or administer an estate. This differs from a lasting power of attorney, where someone grants another person legal authority to make decisions on their behalf over a wide range of issues in the future. 

Life interest

When a beneficiary receives a life interest in a property or investments, it means that they have the right, during their lifetime, to use or receive income arising from the gift.

Missing beneficiary indemnity insurance

This is insurance taken out to protect the personal representative and any beneficiaries should a possible future claim be brought against them (for example, by an entitled relative who has been passed over in the distribution of an estate). You can find more information here.

Partial intestacy

A partial intestacy occurs when someone dies leaving a will that disposes of some but not all of their estate. Partial intestacies usually arise because a beneficiary has predeceased the testator, and the sum in question becomes subject to the rules of intestacy.

Personal representative

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a personal representative is the person who administers the deceased person's estate. If they are named in the will they are called the executor. If there is no will, they are known as the administrator. In Scotland, a personal representative is known as either the executor-dative or the executor-nominative.

Per stirpes

This is Latin for “by branch” and refers to a method of distributing assets when someone dies. In cases of intestacy, in England and Wales estates are distributed per stirpes. For example, if a widower with three children dies intestate, his children will each inherit one third of his estate. However, if one of them has predeceased their father, their third share passes to their children, who divide it equally between themselves. To understand how this method of distributing assets works in more complicated cases, please see our estate distribution guidance page.


Strictly speaking the term “probate” applies only to cases where the deceased has left a will and describes the legal process whereby a grant of probate is obtained. However, it is commonly used to describe the process of obtaining a grant of representation, and thus also covers cases where there is no will.

Probate genealogy / probate research

This is a specialist area of genealogy in which historical records are used to trace the heirs of someone who has died and prove their legal right to inherit from an estate.

Rules of intestacy

When an individual dies without leaving a valid will, the rules of intestacy govern the distribution of the deceased’s estate among surviving family members.

Testamentary capacity

Testamentary capacity is a legal term referring to a person's mental ability to make a will. Under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 a person is assumed to have capacity unless proved otherwise. The test for testamentary capacity was established by the courts in the case of Banks v Goodfellow (1870).


This is someone who makes a will disposing of their property – particularly someone who dies leaving a valid will. Nowadays, “testator” is generally applied to both sexes, and the feminine “testatrix” is becoming obsolete.

Treasury Solicitor (TSol)

The Treasury Solicitor acts as the Crown’s agent to collect, manage and dispose of bona vacantia (ownerless property) in England and Wales, including the estates of people who die intestate and with no entitled relatives. However, in the counties of Lancashire and Cornwall, bona vacantia is dealt with by the respective Duchies.

Unclaimed estates list

Often known as the “bona vacantia list”, this is a list of unclaimed estates that is updated every working day and published online. Because it is published by the Government Legal Department, you will only ever find the genuine bona vacantia list on the Government's website,


A legal document in which someone sets out what should happen to their assets after their death.