An individual who has been named as a personal representative or executor in a will has a number of important duties. These include gathering the deceased person's property and transferring it to the beneficiaries through a court-supervised process known as probate. In order to initiate this proceeding, the executor must first obtain what are referred to as letters testamentary. This document gives the executor the legal authority to administer the deceased person's estate.
While the process varies from state to state, the executor must petition the probate court in the county in which the decedent lived. This typically requires submitting the death certificate and completing a short application. The application includes a sworn statement that the person has been named as the executor in the will, as well as an estimate of the estate's property and debts.
The probate court will then hold a hearing to verify that the individual meets the qualifications to act as executor. Generally he or she must be a mentally competent adult and not be a convicted felon. If approved, the court will issue letters testamentary and officially open probate.
In short, the letters allow the executor to collect the assets of the deceased which may be held by another person or an institution such as a bank. Since banks and other institutions may want to keep the document on file, it is necessary to obtain multiple certified copies. The executor can also carry out his or her other duties such as inventorying and appraising assets, paying debts, and transferring property to beneficiaries, according to the terms of the will.
Letters of Administration
In the event a person dies without a valid will in place, an heir of the decedent, typically a legal relative, needs to petition the probate court for letters of administration. In this situation, the court will hold a hearing to appoint this individual to act as the estate administrator, issue the letters and open probate. The administrator then manages and distributes the assets according to the state's intestacy laws which generally give priority to spouses, children and parents.