Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. I cannot give legal advice. The story below and other articles on this blog regarding probate are strictly my experiences. If you have a legal matter regarding probate please contact a probate attorney.
The ability, or authority, to take action on a will during probate can only happen once Letters of Administration or Testamentary are issued. These letters (really a certificate), issued by the probate (surrogate) court inform businesses, and financial institutions, that you have the fiduciary responsibility to execute a will. Without these letters you won’t be able to access any financial accounts, forward mail, pay bills from the estate, continue business operations, etc. Basically, you can’t touch anything, or do anything, until you get these letters. Also, they are only issued to the executor or administrator. Even then, it is only the executor or administrator that can handle anything associated with an estate.
As it happens, probate does not always go smoothly, even though the deceased has a will. For example, the will could be contested, it could take a long time to get all the waivers to probate in from next of kin, or the executor could renounce and another person must petition to be administrator.
While all this is taking place, the estate assets still have to be secured. That is where Temporary Letters of Administration come into play. The executor, or petitioned administrator, can request these so that estate assets can be secured. Examples would be making sure financial institutions put holds on the accounts so no unusual activity can occur and money will stop going out (e.g auto pay for bills), stocks can be managed, business operations can continue (like writing paychecks), and the estate can be inventoried. If it looks like getting full letters will take an unusually long time, and the assets could be in jeopardy, the court may issue temporary letters.
These letters come with very strict instructions and limitations. They can only be issued to the executor named in the will or to the petitioned administrator cta. Going outside these limitations could cause the court to remove the executor or administrator.
Tasks You CAN Do with Temporary Letters of Administration
Contact Banks and Other Financial Institutions: After a person dies bank accounts can be at risk. So, it is wise to get holds put on the accounts as soon as possible. A bank may be willing to put a hold on an account if you provide them with an original death certificate. However, they are not likely to let you do much else until they see Full Letters of Administration, Executorship or Testamentary. As for what you can do with temporary letters depends on the bank. One bank immediately asked me if I wanted to close the account and get a check. Another said they wouldn’t do anything until I had Full Letters. (I actually filed a complaint higher up and was able to get information needed for inventory but could not do anything else such as transfer funds to an estate account.) Another bank wanted either a fax or the originals of the Temporary Letters and the Death Certificate. They then proceeded to open an estate fund automatically. Although they did tell me I could then transfer the funds to any estate fund at any bank of my choosing.
Forward Mail: As an executor or administrator it isn’t always easy to go to check the mail of the deceased on a frequent basis. For me, that task was 3000 miles away. The post office will let you forward mail to your address, but you will need to provide them a copy of the Temporary Letters. At the very least, have it ready to show them. The post office I went to did not ask for it, so I made a point of saying their website said I had to have the Letters. The form you use to forward mail does have to be signed. You are signing stating you have “legal authority” to forward the mail. The Letters give you authority, in case anyone asks.
Access the domicile: Before Letters are handed out to the executor or administrator no one can enter the home, at least they are not supposed to enter. Some states will go so far as to have the police put a sign on the door that says no one can enter until authority is given by the courts. Once you have Temporary Letters you can go into the home and start looking for important papers, inventorying the personal property, and get an appraiser to give estimates on the value of items in the home. Note: If a will is in the domicile, and nowhere else, I am not sure if one has to get an “OK” from the courts to search for it in the home. That would be a question for an attorney. One does have to get permission from the courts to access a safety deposit box, if that is where the will is kept.
Continue Business Operations: This did not apply to our situation, but if the deceased was the owner of say a sole proprietorship, and that business needs to keep running, the Temporary Letters will give you permission to continue some aspects of the business. The Letter Instructions should state specifically what you can and cannot do.
Setup an Estate Fund: After a person dies all their bank accounts are typically consolidated into one account called an Estate Fund. It is from this account that the estate debts will be paid. Some banks will let you do this with Temporary Letters but it can be an uphill “battle” to convince them.
Pay Bills: As the will is waiting to be submitted into probate it is likely there will be bills to be paid. The funds of the deceased cannot be accessed until Letters are issued, and the family needs to know they do not need to pay the debts out of their own pocket. So, once Temporary Letters are issued the executor or administrator should be able to start paying some of the bills that they will be upheld by the courts. These can include final bills for utilities, cell phone bills, rent, credit card statements, etc. If in doubt on a specific bill, set it aside and ask an attorney or get it approved by the court.
These are just a few of the tasks that can be done with Temporary Letters of Administration. It is always wise to speak to an attorney if you are unsure whether a specific task can be done. Since an executor or administrator has the fiduciary responsibility to the estate for the eventual settling of the estate it is always better to be cautious than to assume a task is OK and be sorry later. Keep in mind that full control of the estate does not come until Full Letters are issued.