What is a letter of testamentary?

In order to fulfill your duties as the executor of an estate, you must first be granted the authority through a letter of testamentary.

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by Brette Sember, J.D.
updated January 26, 2023 ·  2min read

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Acting as the executor of an estate means you'll be in charge of paying bills, inventorying assets, and making distributions to beneficiaries. But to do all of this, you have to be given the legal authority to act by a court. A letter of testamentary give you this authority.

What is a testamentary for an estate?

A letter of testamentary is a document issued by a probate court that gives an executor the power to act in a fiduciary manner on behalf of the estate. You present the letter of testamentary along with the death certificate when you handle estate business to show that you have the authority to act on the estate's behalf.

How to obtain a letter of testamentary

To obtain your letter of testamentary, you will need to file the will and death certificate in the probate court, along with forms asking for the letter of testamentary. You'll need to provide your information, as well as some basic information about the value of the estate and the date of death.

The court will schedule a hearing to verify the information and make sure you are able to serve and meet state qualifications. The letter of testamentary is then issued to you.

You may be wondering how long it takes to obtain a letter of testamentary. This varies by location. It could take several weeks to several months, depending on the court schedule.

Letter of testamentary without a will

When someone dies without a will, it's called dying intestate. Even though a person dies intestate, they still will likely have assets and debts that need to get resolved. The person's remaining assets are distributed to their heirs, who are determined by state law. Generally, assets go first to a surviving spouse and, if there is none, then to children, and then to more distant relations, but the exact rules vary by state.

Even though there is no will, someone must still do the work of winding up the estate's affairs and distributing the assets. The court appoints an administrator, who fulfills basically the same role as an executor. The administrator normally must be the deceased's spouse or next of kin, but it could be anyone with an interest in the estate.

The laws about this are different in each state. A letter of administration is issued to the administrator, giving them the legal authority to act on behalf of the estate.

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Brette Sember, J.D.

About the Author

Brette Sember, J.D.

Brette Sember, J.D., practiced law in New York, including divorce, mediation, family law, adoption, probate and estates,… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.