I was talking to the child of a deceased mother recently. Mom died about a month ago and the Son was, on his own, trying to settle Mom's estate. Mom had two bank accounts, three certificates of deposit, and an investment account. The total of Mom's estate was about $500,000.
When the son went to the banks and the brokerage firms, the son was told that Mom's accounts were frozen, and the son was told, "You need to bring us Letters Testamentary. An attorney can give you that."
So the Son calls my office and talks to me. He asked me, "I'm settling Mom's estate and they are telling me I need a Letter from an attorney so that I can access Mom's accounts. Can I come by your office and get that Letter?"
So, here's the explanation that you'll hear from me when you talk to me about getting a "Letter" after a loved one dies in order to access the accounts:
- Letters Testamentary are court documents. When Mom died, she left a Last Will and Testament naming her son as the executor. When Mom dies, Son has no power initially. Son must hire a lawyer, have a number of court pleadings prepared and signed by multiple parties, and this Petition to Confirm an Executor gets presented to a judge. If the judge sign the Order confirming the Son as the Executor, the clerk of court will issue certified copies of "Letters Testamentary" (also known as "Letters"). This is what the executor needs to present to banks, brokerage firms, and other third parties so that funds and investments will be removed from Mom's frozen account and placed in a new Estate account.
- Letters Testamentary are Never Used Anymore. Even though the bank insists on getting "Letters Testamentary," the banker is using old and incorrect terminology. Nowadays, executors can be "independent executors" which means that while the probate is still necessary, every single action that an independent executor need take (such as paying the water bill or selling a vehicle, need not be approved first by the judge who presides over the Succession proceeding. Once an independent executor is confirmed as such by the judge, the clerk of court issues documents called "Letters of Independent Executorship."
- If No Last Will. If a person dies with no last will and testament, then the court appoints an Administrator, or, if all heirs agree, and Independent Administrator, and the parish clerk of court issues Letters of Administration or Letters of Independent Administration.
Sound confusing? It's confusing if you don't deal with this stuff on a daily basis. If you are in a situation where you are in charge of settling an estate, don't go it alone. There is too much at risk - including the relationships of family members left behind, and not to mention the legal costs that are involved when you make mistakes and have to start all over again. Get some good help from an Estate Administration attorney who has decades of experience helping families get their loved ones' estates settled. You'll be glad you did.