The days following a loved one’s death can involve a flurry of trying to talk to banks, service providers, and others involved in your family member’s affairs. A deceased’s next of kin often receive letters in the mail from financial institutions and insurance companies telling them they need “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration” before anything can be done. Here’s what that means, and how you can get these letters so you can handle your family member’s affairs after their death.
What Are Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration?
If you have ever tried to call a bank on behalf of your aging parent, you have probably been told the teller can’t talk to you about the account without the account holder’s permission. Your parents may have had to sign something authorizing the release of information to you.
However, after your parents or another loved one have died, they can’t authorize you to do anything on their behalf. Simply put, they no longer have rights to assign. Even the durable powers of attorney that they may have signed while they were alive ended upon their deaths. Instead, you need the authority to act on behalf of that person’s estate.
That’s what letters testamentary or letters of administration do. They tell banks, insurance companies, utility companies, and anyone else who needs to know that the Florida probate court has authorized you to act on behalf of the person’s heirs and beneficiaries. In fact, they aren’t really letters at all. They are a court order designating you as the estate’s personal representative (sometimes called executor) and effectively directing the companies and agents who worked with your relative to work with you now instead.
When Do I Need Letters of Administration in Florida?
Just about every person who dies in the State of Florida with assets titled just in their name and no designated beneficiary will need the probate court to issue letters of administration to their estate’s personal representative. Whether your loved one died with or without a will, the Florida probate court will oversee the administration and distribution of that person’s assets. The person doing that administration and distribution, the personal representative, will need letters of administration to perform a variety of tasks associated with that process. These can include the following:
Getting copies of creditor account statements
Gathering assets from banks or financial management companies
Opening an estate bank account
Transferring or otherwise address vehicle titles and registrations
Filing tax returns with the IRS
Closing social media accounts
Signing documents transferring assets to the estate’s beneficiaries
Do Trusts Need Letters of Administration?
If your loved one had a complicated financial situation, provided for someone with special needs, or just wanted to control when and how beneficiaries would receive their inheritance, they may have created and funded a trust as well as or in place of a Will. A well-drafted trust can minimize or even eliminate court involvement in the process of resolving a loved one’s estate.
Unlike in cases with just a Will, if you have been named the successor trustee on a loved one’s revocable trust, you do not need a court order or letters testamentary to act on behalf of the trust. Your authority comes from the trust documents themselves. However, if your family member kept any assets outside the trust during their lifetime, you may still need letters of administration or letters testamentary to deal with the “pour-over Will” and move all the remaining assets from the estate into the trust itself.
How to Petition for Probate of a Will and for Letters of Administration
One challenging part of getting letters of administration in Florida is that it always happens while you and your family are grieving. Under Florida probate law, the custodian of a person’s Will has 10 days after learning that person has died to file an original copy of the Will with the local circuit court clerk, although this time limit, in practice, if frequently exceeded. This filing, along with the petition to probate the person’s estate, starts the probate process. Because there are so many things to attend to after a family member dies, it is a good idea to bring on an estate administration attorney right away to help prepare the petition for probate of a Will and get you the authority you need to handle those remaining affairs. In Florida, you actually must hire an attorney to obtain letters of administration.
The first order issued by the court in a formal administration is usually the designation and appointment of the personal representative. Normally, the court will choose the person named in the Will itself as personal representative. In intestate estates, Florida law provides an order of preference for the personal representative, beginning with the decedent’s surviving spouse, if applicable. However, the heirs can consent or agree to the appointment of someone else in certain situations. Once the probate court decides who will be the estate’s personal representative -- usually deferring to a valid will or by considering statutory preferences in an intestate case -- the letters of administration are issued and the family can begin the process of administering and distributing their loved one’s assets.
The Florida probate process isn’t always easy for grieving loved ones to handle. Without letters of administration, you may have trouble taking the necessary steps to resolve your loved one’s affairs and distribute their assets. The good news is you don’t have to do it alone. By contacting an estate administration attorney as soon as you can after a loved one dies, you can take several responsibilities off your plate. At Harrison Estate Law, P.A., our experienced estate and probate team can help start the probate process and be designated the estate’s personal representative. We will help you be sure your loved one’s wishes are honored and affairs are handled appropriately. Contact us here or call 352-559-9828 to get help today.