Letter of Testamentary: What It Is & Why You Need It

Creating a last will and testament is one of the most fundamental efforts in estate planning, and a key component is naming an executor to carry out the will’s instructions. The executor is the person who will administer the estate, sees it through the probate process, and settles the decedent’s final affairs—in short, it’s a big responsibility. 

Before the executor can begin administering a deceased person’s estate, though, the executor needs to obtain a Letter of Testamentary (also called letters testamentary). In this article, we’ll explain what a letter of testamentary is, why you might need one, how to get one, and more. 

What is a letter of testamentary? 

A letter of testamentary is a legal document granted by a probate court recognizing a person as the executor of a certain estate. It must be issued before the executor can begin probating the estate. 

Even though an executor is specifically named in the will, that person needs a letter of testamentary to formally act on behalf of the decedent in legal and financial matters. What are letters of testamentary for? They empower the executor to do things like: 

  • Pay outstanding debts
  • Distribute the decedent’s assets
  • File taxes on behalf of the decedent’s estate
  • Access bank and other financial accounts
  • Transfer or sell real estate 
  • Transfer vehicle ownership
  • Represent the estate in legal proceedings

Essentially, a letter of testamentary gives the executor the authority to settle the estate. Many financial institutions won’t grant access to a deceased person’s accounts or information without a letter of testamentary to prove the executor’s authority. 

How to get a letter of testamentary 

The steps involved in obtaining a letter of testamentary vary by jurisdiction, but the process typically includes: 

  • Gathering necessary documents for the letter of testamentary application

In many cases, the executor needs to have a copy of will, the deceased’s death certificate, personal identification, and any other jurisdiction-specific documents or forms the court requires. 

  • Submit the application 

After rounding up the appropriate documents, the executor will need to petition the court to grant a letter of testamentary. This requires filling out a probate petition form and filing it with the probate court where the decedent lived or owned property. 

  • Appear in court

The executor may need to appear at a court hearing in which the application is verified and approved. Typically, the hearing involves the judge evaluating the validity of the will and that the executor is a legal adult and capable of carrying out the necessary duties. 

Once the judge confirms that each of these requirements is met, they will approve the request and issue the executor a letter of testamentary, granting the authority to administer the estate. 

Can you get a letter of testamentary without a will? 

If the person died intestate—without a will—the process differs slightly because there is no designated executor. Typically, the relevant court will appoint an administrator to settle the estate. The administrator has the same duties as an executor would. 

Rather than a letter of testamentary, this person would be granted a letter of administration. What’s the difference between letters of testamentary and letters of administration? They provide the same legal and financial authority to settle an estate, but a letter of administration is issued when no will exists and a court has to appoint a representative to manage the deceased person’s affairs. 

In short, letters of testamentary or letters of administration grant someone the authority to represent a deceased person in financial matters. 

For advisors, use this estate planning checklist to ensure your client’s estate is in order. 

Do you need a letter of testamentary with a trust? 

A letter of testamentary is not necessary for administering a trust, because trusts typically avoid probate altogether. This is one of the most important benefits of using trusts in estate planning—they eliminate the need for court intervention and enable assets to pass to beneficiaries more efficiently. Avoiding probate also means that a trust’s terms and contents can remain private, whereas a will typically enters public record when it is probated. Rather than an executor or representative, a trust has a designated trustee to manage and administer its assets. 

Learn more about advanced estate planning strategies here. 


How do I get a letter of testamentary in California? 

Though they can vary by jurisdiction, the basic steps for getting a letter of testamentary in California are: 

  • Obtain the deceased person’s will and death certificate. 
  • Submit a Petition for Probate in the Superior Court in the county where the decedent live by filing Form DE-111, a copy of the will, and your personal identification. You will need to ask the court what other documents are required in the particular jurisdiction. 
  • In most California counties, you will need to pay a $435 filing fee. Some counties require an additional surcharge. 
  • The court will review your petition and, if approved, issue the letters testamentary. 

How do I get a letter of testamentary in Georgia? 

While they may vary by jurisdiction, the basic steps for getting a letter of testamentary in Georgia are: 

  • Obtain a copy of the deceased person’s will and death certificate. 
  • Fill the will and a petition for probate with the probate court in the county in Georgia where the decedent lived. The petition may need to be signed by all heirs. 
  • You may need to send a formal death notice to heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors. 
  • Attend the probate hearing. If the court accepts the petition, the executor is formally appointed and the letters of testamentary are issued.

How do I get a letter of testamentary in Colorado?

Though they can vary by jurisdiction, the basic steps for getting a letter of testamentary in Colorado are: 

  • Obtain the deceased person’s will. 
  • Determine whether you wish to apply for formal probate or informal probate. 
  • Complete a Petition for Probate form (JDF 920). Additional forms that may be required include: Acceptance of Appointment (JDF 911), Renunciation and/or Nomination of Personal Representative (JDF 912), Irrevocable Power of Attorney (JDF 721), Notice of Hearing (JDF 711). 
  • If you are applying for formal probate, the court will schedule a hearing that you must attend in person. If an appearance at a hearing is not required, you need to complete a Notice of Hearing Without Appearance (JDF 712). 
  • Complete either form JDF 913 (informal probate) or JDF 921 (formal probate). 
  • Complete Letters of Testamentary form JDF 915. 
  • File all papers with the court, including the will and filing fee. 
  • If the application is accepted, the court will name you the executor and issue the letter(s) of testamentary. 

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