An Estate Plan is used after someone dies to determine how to proceed with their funeral arrangements, organize financial affairs, and pass down assets or belongings. Unfortunately, more than 60 percent of Americans die without some form of Estate Plan, leaving these responsibilities to family members -- and the court. If someone dies without a Will, this process must begin with a Letter of Administration.
Letters of Administration are used to initiate the probate process, and you typically cannot manage an Estate without one. Below we will explain exactly how Letters of Administration are used, and we will walk you through how to obtain these documents should you ever need to. Keep reading to learn more about Letters of Administration:
What Are “Letters of Administration”?
Letters of Administration are official documents that grant an individual permission to access and manage an Estate after someone dies. This individual -- called the Administrator of Estate -- is then in charge of paying outstanding debts and distributing property to relatives. Letters of Administration are issued by the court.
A Letter of Administration serves the same purpose as a Grant of Probate, though they are used in different cases. Letters of Administration are typically issued when someone dies without an Estate Plan, while a Grant of Probate is used if the deceased has a legal Will.
Why Do You Need Letters of Administration?
You need Letters of Administration to begin closing a deceased person’s Estate. This document will give you permission to access their finances and assets, and manage them according to state law (Or the Will if there is one). For example, most financial institutions will require you to present a Letter of Administration before granting access to a deceased person’s bank account.
Letters of Administration are required when someone dies without a Will or Estate Plan. They may also be necessary if a Will does not specify an Executor, or if the named Executor is unable to serve for medical or legal reasons. Letters of Administration may also be necessary in cases where a Will is contested or deemed invalid.
What Are Letters of Administration in Probate?
Letters of Administration in probate are the documents that allow the necessary legal processes to start. Probate refers to the practice of administering an Estate after someone dies; if the deceased person did not have a Will, probate cannot begin without court approval. This approval is granted in the form of a Letter of Administration.
If you are still asking yourself, “what is the difference between letters of administration and probate?” think about it like this: the Letters of Administration are the first step within the probate process. Without this document, you will likely be unable to conduct all of the tasks necessary to move through probate and ultimately settle an Estate.
Who Needs to Apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration?
You need to apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration if you are the closest person to someone who has died. This responsibility typically belongs to the surviving spouse; if the deceased does not have a surviving spouse the closest living relative (called Next of Kin) would need to apply for the Letter of Administration.
The closest relative will typically start with any children or grandchildren, before including parents and siblings, or nieces and nephews. The order of relatives will be determined by the Intestate Succession Laws in your state. After you apply for the Grant of Letters of Administration, the court will confirm your relationship to the deceased. If there are no challenges from other relatives, you will then be named the Administrator of the Estate.
How to Obtain Letters of Administration?
If you need to obtain a Letter of Administration you will need to file an application with your county court. While this may be an emotionally difficult time, the legal process ahead will be much easier to navigate if you know what to expect. You generally need to follow these steps when obtaining Letters of Administration.
First you will need to obtain a copy of the death certificate to present to the court. It should be provided by the funeral home, and you can request extra copies if needed. You should submit the original copy with your application for the Letters of Administration.
The next step in the process is to list out and notify relatives. While you may have already spoken to family members about the deceased, you will need to alert potential heirs in an official capacity. The purpose of this step is to inform anyone who might inherit a portion of the Estate or step in to serve as Administrator.
After alerting the family, gather as much information as you can about the decedent’s finances. List any assets or debts they have including bank accounts, property, mortgages, investments, credit cards, loans, and life insurance policies. You may not be able to obtain exact information, as some financial institutions will withhold this information until the Letter of Administration is granted; however, you need to provide estimates to the court.
At this point you can file an application for the Grant of Letters of Administration with your county court, provided you meet the legal requirements. You must be above 18 years old, a US citizen, and in most states you cannot have a felony on your criminal record. There are several documents you should prepare to include with your application, which are outlined below.
What Documents Do I Need for a Letter of Administration?
There are a few documents you will need when applying for a Letter of Administration. The exact list may vary slightly from state to state -- but you will generally need the following documents:
The original death certificate
A copy of the Will, if there was one
A statement of assets and liabilities within the Estate
A copy of the titles for any property owned (real estate, vehicles, etc.)
Letters from any banks where accounts are held
Certificates of valuations for any remaining assets
Always double check which documents you need with your county clerk’s office to avoid missing anything. While the above list is typically what is recommended, each state has slightly different laws.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain Letters of Administration?
It takes anywhere from six to eight weeks to obtain the Letters of Administration -- assuming the application was filed with all of the necessary documents. There are a few factors that can extend this timeline, for example if there is a disagreement over who to name as the Administrator of Estate. Because the processing time can vary it is generally recommended that you file an application for the Letters of Administration as soon as possible after the death of a loved one.
What Can I Do With Letters of Administration?
Now that you’ve obtained the Letters of Administration, you will be able to manage assets and funds on behalf of the Estate. With this document, you can access the decedent’s finances and make management decisions accordingly. The Letters of Administration will also allow you to delegate assets and funds to relatives. If there was no Will, state law will determine the inheritances you can distribute after receiving the Letters.
As you can tell, receiving the Letters of Administration is only the first step in the probate process. These documents essentially serve as a court approval for each of the responsibilities you will then be in charge of as the Administrator. While the Letters of Administration will help you through probate, obtaining these documents is only the first step of many.
It is an unfortunate reality that so many individuals die without an Estate Plan -- as this unexpectedly places loved ones in a legal setting they are likely unfamiliar with. To avoid this, you can write a Will and name an Executor of Estate to handle these responsibilities. The Executor must agree to the role, and you will be present to answer any questions before the process actually begins. This is a great way to protect your loved ones from the stress of administering your Estate alongside the court.
The probate process can be difficult to navigate, especially if you are unfamiliar with Estate Planning. The Letters of Administration are just one moving part necessary to complete probate. If you are attempting to manage the Estate of a loved one or simply want more information just in case -- consider how the above information fits into your own Estate Plan. By thinking through these responsibilities now, you can help avoid placing your loved ones in a difficult situation.