What Is a Letter of Testamentary?
By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
May 10, 2021
When a loved one dies, someone has to take over and divide their estate. If the deceased has a will, they probably have named an executor (also known as a personal representative here in Florida). Just because the will named a personal representative, however, does not mean that person can automatically start distributing assets.
First off, Florida courts have specific laws for who can and cannot be a personal representative. Second, in order to act as executor, the named person has to stand in front of a Florida court and request a letter of testamentary. If you believe you’re going to handle a loved one’s estate soon, it’s important to know what a letter of testamentary is and how to get one.
Defining What a “Letter of Testamentary” Is
Financial institutions need proof before they hand over a deceased person’s assets and accounts. The letter of testamentary provides that proof. It is a document given by the probate court to the personal representative. It authorizes them to act on behalf of the deceased’s estate.
Once a letter of testamentary is obtained, the executor can begin their fiduciary duties, including:
- Paying bills and taxes
- Closing accounts
- Selling or transferring real estate
- Locating assets
- Distributing property and assets to beneficiaries
Without this letter, an estate is stuck in limbo, or may be handed over to the Florida probate court.
These letters are also sometimes referred to as “letters of administration” in our state. But that term is usually reserved for appointing a personal representative when the deceased did not have a last will and testament.
How to Obtain a Letter of Testamentary in Florida
If you want to begin completing your duties as personal representative, you will have to go to court. Bring the deceased’s will and death certificate in order to obtain a letter of testamentary. These cannot be obtained online — you’ll have to go in person.
Often, the personal representative will have to “prove” their ability to act as the executor. A judge will want to know the relationship between the decedent and potential representative. They will also make sure the personal representative is of sound mind and legally qualified to take on these duties. Once the judge gives the letter of testamentary to the personal representative, they can begin handling the estate.
As mentioned above, banks and other institutions will want to see a letter of testamentary before giving over access to a decedent’s estate. If you have been granted a letter of testamentary, keep it close by as you complete your fiduciary duties.
How Much Does It Cost to Get a Letter of Testamentary?
Obtaining a letter of testamentary marks the beginning of the formal administration process. This process is not free. You will have to shell out a few hundred dollars to get one and move forward with the probate process.
Need Help With Your Personal Representative Duties?
Letters of testamentary are just one piece of the larger probate puzzle. Without each piece, you may not be able to properly distribute assets. Knowing where to put each piece can also save you and your loved ones a lot of time and money.
Want to learn more about your duties as a personal representative? Call a Florida estate planning attorney.
Originally published 11/26/19. Updated 5/10/21.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose®
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