It’s time for you to collect your loved one’s assets. Bills are coming due. And your loved one has kept it simple for you: they left behind the house, a bank account, and a retirement account. This should be simple, right? Well… not so fast. Even when a valid last will and testament is available, banks, financial institutions, and life insurance companies may sometimes ask you to provide letters of testamentary before they will release funds to you. The good news is that obtaining letters of testamentary is a common procedure, and an estate planning or probate attorney can help you meet any challenges you encounter.
Before I explain how to obtain one of these documents, I’ll define what they are and a bit about their importance.
All About Letters of Testamentary in the State of Texas
Definition of Letters of Testamentary
A letter of testamentary is a document given by a probate court to the executor of a will. Usually, the executor is specifically named in the will, although in some instances, an executor can be appointed by a court even if they are not named in the will. Letters of testamentary provide an individual the authority to administer a deceased person’s estate—to follow the directions in the will. Letters of testamentary are evidence of this court-appointed authority. They are also known as “letters testamentary.”
Probate Law and Letters of Testamentary
Because these letters are official documents issued by a court from a (sometimes contentious) probate proceeding, it is often the only thing a bank or financial institution will accept as proof that you have the right to withdraw, use, or distribute the funds. To obtain this important document as soon as possible, you’ll need to plan ahead so that the probate proceedings go as smoothly as possible.
Letters of Testamentary vs. Letters of Administration
Letters of testamentary show that you were appointed executor of the estate in the deceased’s will. If there was no will—known as “dying intestate”—the probate court will need to grant you letters of administration instead. This will allow you to become administrator of the estate, taking on the role an executor would have had if there had been a will. You will be known as the administrator of the estate (hence, “letters of administration”).
Why do I need letters of testamentary?
Letters of testamentary may be needed in order to:
- Pay for funeral expenses
- Pay off any debts of the estate
- Get an inventory of an estate’s assets
- Distribute assets according to the will
- Access bank accounts
- Distribute life insurance proceeds
- Repair, maintain, and sell real estate
- Defend from claims made against the estate
- Represent the deceased in a personal injury claim
How to Get Letters of Testamentary in Dallas or Fort Worth, Texas
There’s a process for getting these documents and it can seem a bit complicated at first. That’s why we broke it down into three easy steps. Let’s go through it together.
Step 1. What to Do When a Loved One Dies
Begin with gathering documents and contacting an attorney to set the process in motion.
First, Gather Important Documents
You can start collecting the following documents soon after a loved one passes. It’s best to have several copies ready for this process.
- The death certificate.
- The original will. Be sure to make a copy since the original will be sent to the court.
- Bank statements, deeds, policy statements, and any other documentation that shows ownership of assets. If you do not live close to the deceased, you may want to arrange to have their mail forwarded.
- Collected bills. Collect them, but talk to an attorney before you pay them!
Next, Contact an Attorney
You should seek the advice of an estate planning or probate attorney, who can listen to the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s passing and the estate. It is important to get expert advice early on because many delays or problems can still be avoided depending on how the estate is administered at this stage.
Hiring an attorney can also protect you from liability if you are planning to serve as the executor. Here are some common issues an attorney can help with:
- Determine if a valid will exists
- Identify probate vs. non-probate assets
- Protect and securing property until the court issues you letters of testamentary
- Navigate family dynamics and claims on the estate
- Deal with issues around real estate, bank accounts, and other assets
- Decide when to pay the debts of the deceased
Step 2. Filing for Probate of the Will in the State of Texas to Obtain Letters Testamentary
In order to obtain letters of testamentary, a court must review and approve the will as well as determine that you are qualified to serve as executor. There are two primary steps to this task:
First, File an Application for the Probate Hearing
An application must be filed with the court requesting this hearing. A Texas probate attorney is best suited to prepare and file the application. They must file for a probate hearing in the county in which your loved one died. You will need to pay filing fees to the county court. In the State of Texas, these fees are usually less than $300.
2021 probate filing fees for Dallas County, Texas
- Filing for probate of a will, to obtain letters of testamentary: $266
- Filing for administration of an estate with no will, to obtain letters of administration: $266
2021 probate filing fees for Tarrant County, Texas
- Filing for probate of a will, to obtain letters of testamentary: $256
- Filing for administration of an estate with no will, to obtain letters of administration: $256
Next, Attend the Probate Hearing
The probate hearing allows the court to review the contents of the application, listen to any objections from other parties, and make a judicial ruling. If the will names the executor as an independent executor, it’s usually the only time a court hearing will be needed during the entire probate process. (A dependent administration will require multiple court hearings to approve executor actions.)
Step 3. Congratulations! You Now Have Letters Testamentary! Now What?
Now that the estate is in probate, as executor you need to:
1. Notify Interested Parties
It is your duty, as executor, to let beneficiaries and creditors know that the administration of the estate has been opened. Your attorney can ensure that you satisfy this legal notice requirement promptly so you don’t run afoul of your obligations as executor.
2. Administer the Estate in Accordance With the Will
As executor, you will be charged with doing the following according to the will:
- Collecting the estate assets
- Paying estate debts
- Distributing the estate proceeds to the beneficiaries
Make sure you read the will carefully! The executor is responsible for acting in the best interests of the beneficiaries, so it’s important to take your responsibility seriously and with due care.
A Texas probate attorney is a great resource to have by your side during this process. An attorney can will make your job easier and less stressful, and ensure your loved one’s wishes are carried out.