The vast majority of families and estates go through probate, and one of the key documents executors need to take control and manage and estate’s assets are either letters testamentary or letters of administration.
Because they are similar in effect, people often use these terms interchangeably. This is incorrect and ignores a fundamental difference between the two types of letters.
The Difference Between Letters Testamentary and Letters of Administration
Letters testamentary are given by probate judges to executors when the deceased passed testate, or with a will, whereas letters of administration are given to executors who are settling the estate of someone who passed intestate, or without a will.
Letters testamentary = will
Letters of administration = no will
To help you remember, think testate = letters of testamentary.
Both types of letters effectively do the same thing, which is give someone power over an estate during probate. You may also see the phrase “getting your letters” used as a catch-all that includes both letters testamentary and letters of administration.
The Power Letters Testamentary and Letters of Administration Give
Both letters testamentary and letters of administration give an executor (or other synonym like administrator or personal representative) the legal authority to manage, control, sell, and access a deceased individual’s assets in accordance with their will or local intestacy law if a will did not exist.
Banks, investment services, real estate attorneys, and a variety of other organizations and people ask for these letters and a death certificate when an executor reaches out about accessing or managing a particular probate asset.
Without these letters, it would be much easier for family members and other people to pretend someone has passed away and attempt to access their assets.
What Letters Testamentary Look Like
Letters Testamentary are usually delivered as a paper document by the probate judge and look like:
What Letters of Administration Look Like
Letters of Administration are delivered just like letters testamentary but have slightly different language:
How to Get Letters Testamentary
Here’s how to get your letters of testamentary.
- Find the will
- File the will
- Read the will and figure out who was appointed executor
- Assuming that’s you, file a petition for probate (get the probate form you need), or google "application for probate" with the estate’s county and state afterward)
- File that form(s) with the correct probate court in the county/state where the person was permanently living (domiciled)
- Inform family members, heirs, creditors, and other beneficiaries that probate is beginning
- Attend the probate hearing
- Be appointed as executor or personal representative by the judge
- Receive your letters testamentary from the court (they will give them to you)
- Fulfill the rest of your duties as executor or personal representative
How to Get Letters of Administration
Here’s how to get your letters of administration:
- Search for a will thoroughly before deciding it doesn’t exist
- Discuss with family and friends who will be assuming the role of executor / personal representative / administrator.
- File the petition for probate forms and any other forms required with the correct probate court in the county/state where the person was permanently living (domiciled)
- Let family members, heirs, creditors, and other beneficiaries know
- Attend the probate hearing*
- Be appointed as administrator or executor by the probate judge
- Receive your letters of administration from the court (they will give them to you)
The Bottom Line on Letters Testamentary vs. Letters of Administration
While similar in effect, letters testamentary are given to executors or personal representatives when the deceased designated them as such in their will, and letters of administration are given to family members, friends, or third-party individuals who step up to serve as executor or administrator when someone passes away intestate, or without a will.