Letters of Testamentary: What Every Executor Should Know

letters of testamentary

Settling a loved one’s estate can be difficult and confusing if you’ve been named executor in their will. One of your responsibilities involves obtaining a court document known as a “letter of testamentary.” But what exactly are these letters, why are they needed, and how does an executor get them?

As experienced probate attorneys, we frequently help executors understand the process and importance of obtaining letters of testamentary. We find many executors have never heard the term before being appointed in a will.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of letters of testamentary under North Carolina law. We’ll look at common questions our clients have like:

  • Who needs letters of testamentary?
  • How does an executor apply and qualify for letters?
  • What legal powers do the letters provide?
  • How are letters of testamentary used to settle affairs?

While we can help demystify this document, keep in mind that every estate’s situation is unique. We strongly advise working with a qualified North Carolina probate attorney to ensure you fully meet your fiduciary duties as executor.

When Are Letters of Testamentary Required?

In North Carolina, estates valued over $20,000 generally must go through formal probate with the clerk of the superior court in the county where the deceased resided. As part of probate, the executor named in the will applies to take on legal responsibility for managing the estate settlement.

The clerk then issues a document appointing that person as the estate’s legal representative. That document is formally known as “letters of testamentary” or simply “letters.”

Letters provide legal proof that the executor has authority under North Carolina law to handle matters like accessing estate assets, paying debts, and distributing inheritances. Executors of smaller estates may instead receive a similar clerk appointment called “letters of administration.”

Letters of Testamentary vs. Letters of Administration

Another type of document executors sometimes receive from the probate court is “letters of administration.” So what’s the difference between letters of testamentary?

Letters of administration are issued when someone dies without a will, leaving no named executor. They appoint a personal representative, typically the surviving spouse or next of kin, to administer the estate.

The process for getting appointed by letters of administration matches that of testamentary letters. You still must file the death certificate, petition the court, and qualify to serve. The duties of that appointed administrator also largely mirror those of a named executor.

So, in practice, letters of administration serve essentially the same legal purpose: empowering someone to settle estate affairs. The key difference lies in whether the deceased left a valid will nominating an executor.

Who Can Obtain Letters of Testamentary?

To receive letters of testamentary in North Carolina, you must meet requirements in state law to serve as that estate’s executor. Priority is first given to someone named as executor in the deceased’s valid will if they’re over 18 and legally competent.

If no will exists, letters are typically granted to the surviving spouse or next of kin. The applicant must either be a North Carolina resident or appoint somebody to serve as their “resident process agent”. NC residents don’t have to live in the same county as the probate court handling the estate.

Applying for Appointment as Executor

The process for getting appointed as an estate’s executor requires filing certain documents with the county probate court and paying a fee.

Common items needed include:

  • The original will copy
  • The death certificate
  • Your application and qualification forms

You may also need to meet any surety bond requirements based on that estate’s value and assets unless bond is waived by the terms of the will or the heirs. After reviewing your petition and forms, the probate clerk will issue official letters of testamentary appointing you as that estate’s executor if everything looks in order.

What Legal Powers Do Letters Provide?

Once appointed by the letters, the named executor gains important legal responsibilities and powers under North Carolina law:

  • Authority to access estate assets like bank accounts
  • Standing to file tax returns and manage estate property
  • Duty to inventory assets and notify beneficiaries
  • Power to liquidate assets if debts require
  • Responsibility to distribute inheritances once administration is complete

Presenting certified copies of your letters to financial institutions grants access to act on behalf of the estate. You take on serious fiduciary duties to act in the estate and beneficiaries’ best interests.

Using Letters to Settle Financial Affairs

Executors typically need to furnish letters of testamentary multiple times when wrapping up the deceased’s affairs like:

  • Closing or transferring bank accounts, investments
  • Re-titling property like vehicles and real estate
  • Canceling government benefits, insurance plans
  • Filing final tax returns
  • Notifying credit agencies
  • Paying legitimate estate debts
  • Corresponding with creditors about claims

This document proves to organizations that you have a legal appointment to handle these matters. Letters empower you to ultimately distribute remaining assets to heirs according to North Carolina intestacy laws or the will’s wishes.

Be prepared to order multiple certified copies from the clerk to furnish as proof – generally 10 or more, at the time you open the estate to save time and hassle of having to go back and get more. Also, consider safe storage since letters could facilitate identity theft if obtained by bad actors.

Getting Help From An Experienced Probate Attorney

While letters of testamentary provide authority on paper, navigating all the logistics of legal asset transfers and filings has trip-ups even for seasoned executors. Emotions and family dynamics also run high when grieving lost loved ones. Obtaining professional help can provide guidance through the learning curves and interpersonal challenges.

Our probate attorneys at Apple Payne Law assist with correctly obtaining letters needed to close accounts and transfer property ownership. We also advise on process requirements, special asset considerations, creditor claim disputes, and distribution of assets.

We have extensive experience advising both experienced and first-time executors. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you need guidance on how and when letters of testamentary fit into your estate administration process.

Author Bio

Ronald D. Payne II
Ronald D. Payne II is the CEO and Managing Attorney of Apple Payne Law, a North Carolina law firm he founded in 2018. With more than 11 years of experience practicing law, he is dedicated to representing clients in a wide range of legal matters, including business law, estate planning, family law, probate, and traffic law.

Ronald received his Juris Doctor from the Wake Forest University School of Law and is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being awarded the 2020 Client’s Choice Award by Avvo and multiple Rising Star awards from Super Lawyers.

LinkedIn | State Bar Association | Avvo | Google

location map

Contact us below and we’ll be in touch as soon as possible!

Kernersville Office

900 Old Winston Rd. STE 212
Kernersville NC 27284

Winston-Salem Office

190 Charlois Blvd. Suite 200
Winston-Salem NC 27103