One of the major reasons for admission of patients to hospital in late stage disease is the inability of carers to continue to provide care at home. Specialist palliative care services have typically admitted patients for acute symptom control, terminal care and respite care to benefit them and their carers. This paper reports the results of a cross-sectional survey of inpatient respite care provision provided by specialist palliative care services and hospices in the UK. A structured questionnaire was mailed to 242 clinical services managers listed in the Hospice Information Directory in 2003. A 69% response rate was achieved. The questionnaire explored the nature of respite services, their purpose, organization, delivery and examined definitions used. The analysis indicated that 80% of the sample provided inpatient respite care. Most inpatient respite admissions were planned, of fixed duration (7–14 days) and were intended to benefit patients and carers. There was some evidence that respite provision was regarded as a lower priority than admissions for symptom control and terminal care, and that patients' needs were prioritized over those of carers. Only 10% of services conducted regular, routine audit, with very few seeking the views of service users. Findings suggest that carers' needs and wishes are not prioritized by specialist palliative care services offering inpatient respite, which may mean that they find it difficult to maintain their caregiving roles over longer disease trajectories or in the face of overwhelming demands.