2 minute read

Letter of Testamentary - What It Is & Why You Need It

If you anticipate being involved with Executorship of a Will or Trust, you may want to secure a Letter of Testamentary. Learn more about this document.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

The process of settling an estate often involves terms we don’t regularly hear. There’s a lot to figure out, and things can feel overwhelming. You need to navigate everything from knowing the basics of how to open probate, to the terminology, like understanding what a Letter of Testamentary is.   

We regularly field questions about this term, which is why we put together a guide, to share some important information about what Letters of Testamentary are, why you need them and most importantly, how you get them. Keep reading, as we explain everything you’ll need to know. 

What is a Letter of Testamentary?

A Letter of Testamentary is a document granted to the Executor of an estate by the probate court. This document gives the Executor the authority he or she will need to formally act on behalf of the decedent. It gives the right to handle financial and other affairs related to closing out the estate. In essence, it offers the power to act in a truly fiduciary manner. 

Letters of Testamentary, along with a valid death certificate, usually are enough to allow the Executor to handle all basic financial and formal duties needed to close out an estate. With these documents, an Executor can pay off debts and taxes the estate may owe, and access and close out accounts the decedent owned. 

How to Get a Letter of Testamentary? 

Once a loved one passes away, someone (usually a spouse, adult child, parent or other close family member or friend) will be named Executor. This is often done through a Will, but in cases where the decedent has passed away intestate (without a Will), the courts will appoint someone. The Executor can then obtain the document they need to move forward. 

To get the actual letter, you’ll need to provide most, if not all, of the following:

  • A copy of the Will (if available)

  • The Death Certificate

  • Any required forms the court requests

  • Information about yourself (to properly identify you’re the appropriate Executor)

You’ll submit the above documents, application and any required fees to the courts, at which point a hearing will be scheduled. During the hearing, the court will verify the Will and assess your capability to serve as Executor. It is then the Letters of Testamentary will be issued. 

NOTE: You should request multiple copies, as many institutions will require originals. 

How Much Does a Letter of Testamentary Cost?

While the actual physical Letter of Testamentary will cost just a few dollars (somewhere between $5 and $20 per original copy, depending on the court and state you’re in), the process to get the Letters will likely be much more. 

You’ll need to pay: 

  • A filing fee (could be anywhere from around $50 - $1200, depending on local court fees) to petition the court - this happens when you begin probate. 

  • If you hire a probate attorney, there will of course be fees associated with that. There’s no one, true, great estimate on the legal costs you can expect to pay to go through probate. There are many variables at play, including the size and complexity of the estate and a lawyer’s experience, for example. Often, probate attorney fees could start at around an estimated $2,000.

Can You Get a Letter of Testamentary Without a Will?

In short, yes, you can get a Letter of Testamentary even if the decedent died intestate (meaning he or she didn’t leave a Will). If this is the case, the process just includes another step. 

The first thing you’ll need to do if there’s no Will or other Estate Plans is file to open probate through the local courts. Once you do that, a hearing date will be set to appoint an Administrator (also known as an Executor or Personal Representative) - this is often a spouse or next of kin. 

The Administrator will be charged with detailing all assets in the estate, settling debts and paying taxes. He or she would be issued what’s actually known as a Letter of Administration to gain the legal authority needed to deal with all these issues and anything else regarding the estate.  

What is the Difference Between Letters of Administration and Letters of Testamentary?

As explained, the Letters of Testamentary give an Executor the authority they need to act on behalf of the estate. With this document, they can do virtually everything they need to in order to close the estate out and distribute assets to rightful heirs. This is the formal process that occurs when an estate owner has left a Will naming a Personal Representative/Executor. 

A Letter of Administration, however, is the term used in cases when someone dies without leaving any direction about whom they want to administer their estate. When the court selects the Administrator, he or she is provided with Letters of Administration, which affords the same authority that Letters of Testamentary do. 

Do You Need a Letter of Testamentary with a Trust?

No, you will not need Letters of Testamentary to administer a Trust. In fact, a Trust administration avoids the entire probate process and eliminates the need for any court intervention - both of which are huge advantages to establishing a Trust in the first place. 

Creating and properly funding a Trust can save your loved ones time, money, and most often, a lot of stress. Trusts are private and can be a saving grace for those you leave behind. Planning your Trust or Will is easy and inexpensive when you use the trusted services of Trust & Will.   

Nobody wants to think about passing away, but the truth is, we really should. Understanding the process our friends and family will have to go through can help us set things up now to make everything easier in the future. Letters of Testamentary, and all the other things that go along with probate and estate administration, can be made simpler when you’re prepared.

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