Personal representatives

Explaining who are the personal representatives, what their role is, how they are appointed, and how they administer the estate

Who deals with the estate?

If there is a will the person who deals with the estate administration will be the named executor(s). If not, or the will doesn’t appoint executors who are able or willing to act, the law sets out who can administer the estate. These people are called administrators. The general term for both executors and administrators is personal representatives (PRs).

How many personal representatives are needed?

A will usually appoints one or two executors, but there is no upper limit to the number which can be named in the will. However, only four can be named on the grant of probate application. 

While the maximum is four, it is normally sensible to keep the number of executors to a minimum in order to cut down costs and improve time scales for completing probate.

If the deceased died without a will there are some situations where there must be at least two administrators:

  • If any beneficiary is under 18 years of age, or
  • If there is a life interest trust in the estate and the estate value exceeds £250,000. E.g. where there is a spouse/civil partner and issue (children, grandchildren etc).

Do personal representatives have to Act?

There is never an obligation to act as a personal representative if you do not wish to do so. 

Executors can either renounce (reject their role completely provided they haven’t meddled in the estate) or have power reserved to them (useful where they don’t wish to act now but wish to reserve the right to become involved later).

Administrators must apply to be appointed by the court. If someone who is entitled to become an administrator does not want to be involved, they do not need to take any action. If no-one comes forward, the court will appoint an administrator. The order of entitlement to act as administrator follows the order of entitlement to benefit from the estate on intestacy. For more information see our ‘Intestacy’ page.

Who cannot act as a personal representative?

Personal representatives must be over 18 years of age, mentally capable and preferably not bankrupt. The deceased’s former spouse or civil partner may not be able to act if the marriage or civil partnership formally came to an end after the will was made.

If a personal representative lacks mental capacity then they cannot apply for a grant of probate. If there are others who can apply, power is automatically reserved to any mentally incapable personal representative. However, if they are the sole named personal representative then someone else must apply for the grant of probate in their place. The law sets out the order of priority for who else is entitled to apply, and advice should be obtained as to who is the most appropriate applicant.

If a personal representative loses mental capacity after the grant has been issued, then a new grant may be needed. Once again, in this situation specialist advice should be obtained.

If one of the personal representatives is bankrupt it is preferable for others to administer the estate without them. However, if they are the sole executor and there is no land and no trusts in the estate then they may act.  If this is not the case, specialist advice should be obtained to determine how to proceed.

The role of personal representatives

The primary role of personal representatives is to settle any outstanding liabilities due on the estate, and to distribute any remaining assets to the beneficiaries. This core role has several duties attached, the most onerous of which is to preserve the estate and prevent loss. This typically requires:

  • applying for the grant of probate (see ‘Applying for the grant of probate’ for more details on the application process);
  • collecting in the assets of the deceased, and protecting the assets against loss;
  • paying the deceased’s liabilities (see ‘Personal representatives: responsibilities for debt’ for more information on this aspect);
  • distributing the deceased’s estate in accordance with the terms of the will and rules of intestacy.

This work will often take several months to complete, and most personal representatives choose to appoint a professional to administer the estate on their behalf. 

For more information on the role of personal representatives, and a detailed explanation of the core duties, please see our ‘Role of personal representatives’ page

Registering a death

Deaths should be registered with the Registrar of Births and Deaths for the local area within 5 days of the death occurring unless the coroner is investigating the death. The person issuing the death certificate, or the coroner’s office, will be able to tell you where to register. 

Only specified people are qualified to register a death:

  • a relative
  • someone present at the death
  • an occupant at the deceased’s home
  • an official from the hospital or care home
  • the person making the funeral arrangements.

It is also essential to be able to provide a copy of the death certificate, or the coroner’s document. For more guidance on the information the Register Office will ask for, and how to obtain a copy of the death certificate, please see our page ‘Registering a death’.


If there is a will which appoints executors, they will have the primary responsibility for organising the funeral. People often leave directions for their funeral in their will, although these wishes are not necessarily binding.

If there is no pre-paid funeral plan, then the funeral costs can be deducted from the value of the estate. These expenses must be ‘reasonable’, but can cover a range of costs including flowers, obituaries, and headstones. 

If there is no will, or if the estate is too small to meet the costs of a funeral, the cost and organisation for the funeral is usually covered by close family members. 

For more information on funeral wishes and covering the costs of a funeral, please see our ‘Funerals’ page.