Letters testamentary are legal papers, known as instruments, that give the executor of a will the authority to manage the requests made in the will. These documents normally are are issued in probate court, and often spell out the executor's responsibilities as well. In some regions, letters testamentary are called letters of administration, especially when there isn’t a valid will.
To receive letters testamentary, the probate court typically must appoint an executor for the estate. The executor is usually named in the will, but if one isn’t then the probate judge selects someone for the role. When first appearing in probate court, the executor normally provides information on the deceased’s family and others who are named in the will. He or she also commonly provides information regarding the approximate value of the deceased’s estate.
After the letters testamentary have been signed by the probate judge and picked up at the court clerk’s office, the executor typically has certified copies made to give to the deceased’s banks and other financial institutions. In some cases, a copy of the death certificate must also be provided. Copies of death certificates usually can be obtained from government agencies that track births, marriages and deaths. It’s also sometimes possible to get a copy from the funeral home that handled the funeral arrangements.
The letters are commonly used to give the executor access to the deceased’s bank accounts so he or she can transfer the funds into an account for the estate. If the executor and deceased shared a joint account, it may still be best to open a separate account that is strictly for the estate so withdrawals and deposits can be accurately tracked. Depending on the region, an executor may need to get a taxpayer identification number to open the bank account.
The letters testamentary may also allow the executor to have utilities, such as electric and water, transferred into the name of the estate. Once these utilities have been transferred, the executor normally has authority to have them turned off as well as to make any payments that are owed.
In addition to giving the executor of the estate the right to handle the finances of the deceased, the letters testamentary also typically give the executor authority to distribute assets to beneficiaries named in the will. He or she may also work with creditors to pay off current and past due fees or hire an attorney to represent the estate if legal counsel is needed. In addition, they also allow the funds to be used to pay mortgages, property taxes, and maintenance expenses for the deceased’s home.