Probate dilemmas: Finding a beneficiary could cause delays of more than nine months

  • Probate lawyers have seen a 37 per cent increase in the number of families struggling to track down beneficiaries of an estate
  • In 31 per cent of cases in the last 12 months there was an issue that delayed settling a deceased person’s estate
  • There were 8,007 open cases of unclaimed inheritance in September 2020


New research amongst probate lawyers from Direct Line Life Insurance1 reveals that almost a third (31 per cent) of cases in the last 12 months have faced delays in closing an estate.

The most common reasons causing issues when settling an estate were; one or more of the listed beneficiaries could not be found (33 per cent), there were difficulties proving the relationship with the beneficiary and the deceased (29 per cent) and the executor of the will had passed away (16 per cent).

If one of these issues arises it could delay the estate being settled by as long as a year. Finding the relevant assets and being unable to find one or more listed beneficiaries is likely to delay the process by more than nine months. The process could face a delay of more than eight months if the if someone contests the contents of the will or if the will wasn’t properly written, as the solicitor will need to prove the relationship between the beneficiary and the deceased.

Table one: Average delay to probate process and reasons for delay


Average time in months

One or more listed beneficiaries cannot be found


Finding all the relevant assets


Someone contesting the validity of the will


Proving a relationship between a beneficiary and the deceased


The executor of the will has died


The will wasn’t professionally written


Paying the inheritance tax bill


Tracing family members if the deceased did not leave a will


Couldn’t locate the will


Source: Direct Line Life Insurance 2020


Probate lawyers report that they have seen a rise in these types of issues, especially increased difficulty tracking down beneficiaries, this is predominantly down to families seeing each other less regularly (47 per cent), children and parents taking different surnames (23 per cent) and families falling out with each other more often (17 per cent).

Further research from Direct Line Life Insurance2 found that there were 2,882 cases of unclaimed inheritance which were more than 20 years old, with the oldest being 46 years old and listed on 16th June 1974. Overall, there were 8,007 cases of unclaimed inheritance recorded in the UK as of September 2020, with an average of six new cases raised every week in H1 2020.


Table one: Analysis of unclaimed inheritances 



Cases per 100,000

Share of total cases




32.7 per cent 

South East



18.2 per cent 




9.1 per cent 

West Midlands



8.1 per cent 

Yorkshire and the Humber



8.1 per cent 

South West



7.2 per cent 

East Midlands



5.6 per cent 




4.0 per cent 

North East



2.6 per cent 

North West



2.3 per cent 




2.2 per cent 

Grand Total



100 per cent 

Source: Direct Line Life Insurance 2020

The analysis also reveals that the number of unclaimed inheritances is increasing, with an 18 per cent increase in 2019 compared to 20 years ago and an 11 per cent increase from 10 years ago.

Chloe Couper, Business Manager at Direct Line Life Insurance, commented: “Organising probate can be a very stressful time for families and relatives who have lost a loved one. This situation can be exacerbated by issues which cause unnecessary delays to the process. This research highlights the need to discuss these complex issues with family members and for them to ensure that a will is written at an appropriate time, helping to reduce the likelihood of these issues arising.

“We would recommend that anyone going through this process checks their, or their loved one’s, life insurance policy, as they may be in a position to receive a lump sum which would help ensure legal fees and funeral costs are covered while any probate issues are resolved.”


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Notes to Editors

1.      Research conducted by Pure Profile among 100 probate lawyers in the UK, conducted between 17th Feb – 24th February 2020

2.      Analysis of data as of the 11th September 2020 on unclaimed inheritance accounts in the UK and the region of death for the deceased (

For further information please contact:

Claire Jarrett

PR Manager

Direct Line Group

Tel: 01651 832 411

Email: [email protected]

Alannah Sims

Citigate Dewe Rogerson

Tel: 0207 025 6563

Email: [email protected]  


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