Help! What if the seller of their home dies between exchange and completion?

This is a pretty rare scenario, but nevertheless can and does happen.  

So where do you stand in a situation where the seller dies before the exchange of contracts?

If exchange of contracts has happened and the completion date fixed, the contract is still valid and the benefit of that will pass to the deceased seller’s personal representatives (those appointed to deal with their estate).

What happens next however will depend on how the property is owned. 

Sole Ownership

If it’s in the deceased’s sole name, then a Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration will be needed before the sale could proceed to completion and this would cause a delay in completion taking place. Possibly quite a lengthy one.

Jointly Held Property

If the property is held jointly, there are two possibilities.

If the deceased seller owned the property as joint tenants with another, the survivor of them will automatically inherit the deceased’s share. Once the death of the deceased has been registered at the Land Registry, the survivor could continue with the sale in accordance with the terms of the Contract. There would be a delay in completion but probably only a fairly limited one.

If the deceased seller owned the property jointly with another as tenants in common, this is quite complex as they would each own their distinct share of the property. 

The deceased seller’s share would pass in accordance with the terms of their Will or via the intestacy rules if no Will was in place.  

In this situation the surviving owner must appoint a new Trustee to be able to give a valid receipt for the deceased’s share of the sale of the property.  That share would be paid to the Personal Representatives of the deceased’s estate to distribute accordingly. 

The Personal Representatives must seek legal advice as to why the property may have been held as tenants in common, ie was there a Trust in the deceased’s Will?  

It would be a good idea where possible to appoint the Personal Representative of the deceased as the additional Trustee for the sale of the property.  

If there is a Will a Grant of Probate is required as whilst the Executors authority will be gained from the Will, the Grant of Probate proves their right to act on behalf of the deceased’s estate.

If there is no Will and the deceased died intestate a Grant of Letters of Administration to prove the Personal Representatives who take the Grant have the right to act on behalf of the deceased’s estate will be required.

Our Top Tip

As you can see, the situation may be far from straightforward. 

As a specialist in complex and probate-related property transactions, I am happy to guide my clients through the required steps. 

My top tip perhaps, harsh as it may sound, is that if you are buying a property and have any concerns about the seller’s state of health, you highlight these with your property solicitor at the earliest possible stage of the buying process.

How the sale is dealt with when an owner dies between exchange of contracts and completion will depend on how the property is owned.