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In common-law jurisdictions, administration of an estate on death arises if the deceased is legally intestate, meaning they did not leave a will, or some assets are not disposed of by their will.
Where a person dies leaving a will appointing an executor, and that executor validly disposes of the property of the deceased within England and Wales, then the estate will go to probate. However, if no will is left, or the will is invalid or incomplete in some way, then administrators must be appointed. They perform a similar role to the executor of a will but, where there are no instructions in a will, the administrators must distribute the estate of the deceased according to the rules laid down by statute and the common trust.
Certain property falls outside the estate for administration purposes, the most common example probably being houses jointly owned that pass by survivorship on the first death of a couple into the sole name of the survivor. Other examples include discretionary death benefits from pension funds, accounts with certain financial institutions subject to a nomination and the proceeds of life insurance policies which have been written into trust. Trust property will also frequently fall outside the estate but will depend on the terms of the trust.
Upon the death of a person intestate, or of one who left a will without appointing executors, or when the executors appointed by the will cannot or will not act, the Probate Division of the High Court of Justice or the local District Probate Registry will appoint an administrator who performs similar duties to an executor. The court does this by granting letters of administration to the person so entitled. Grants of administration may be either general (where the deceased has died intestate) or limited. The order in which the court will make general grants of letters follows the sequence:
Under the rules for distribution of estates without a will (the Intestacy Rules), where a child under 18 would inherit or a life interest would arise, the Court or District Probate Registry would normally appoint a minimum of two administrators. On some estates, even under an intestate, it is not clear who are the next-of-kin, and probate research may be required to find the entitled beneficiaries.
An administrator (sometimes known as the administratrix, if female) acts as the personal representative of the deceased in relation to land and other property in the UK. Consequently, when the estate under administration consists wholly or mainly of land, the court will grant administration to the heir to the exclusion of the next of kin. In the absence of any heir or next of kin, the Crown has the right to property (other than land) as bona vacantia, and to the land by virtue of the historic land rights of the Crown (and the Duchy of Cornwall and Duchy of Lancaster in their respective areas). If a creditor claims and obtains a Grant of Administration, the court compels him or her to enter into a bond with two sureties that he or she will not prefer his or her own debt to those of other creditors.
The more important cases of grants of special letters of administration include the following:
In the first case the principle of administration cum testamento is followed, in the second that of general grants in the selection of the person to whom letters are granted.