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Letters Testamentary and Letters of Administration

In California, as in many other jurisdictions, “Letters of Administration” and “Letters Testamentary” are legal documents related to the administration of an estate, specifically when someone passes away. As a Folsom lawyer who specializes in probate, these letters are a recurring part of my practice and I believe it is important for anyone involved in probate to understand their significance. Essentially, these letters grant individuals certain powers and responsibilities in managing the deceased person’s assets and affairs, but they are associated with different types of estates and circumstances.  Please read on to find out more

  1. Letters of Administration:
    • Purpose: Letters of Administration are granted by the probate court when a person dies without a valid will (i.e. when the person dies “intestate”). When there is no will or the will is deemed invalid, the court appoints an administrator to manage the decedent’s estate and distribute assets according to the state’s intestacy laws.
    • Administrator: The person appointed as the administrator is typically a close relative, such as a surviving spouse or a next of kin. The court will make this determination based on the hierarchy of potential administrators outlined under California probate statutes. The administrator is also generally known as an “executor” of the estate, or as a “personal representative” in California. 
    • Responsibilities: The administrator’s responsibilities include inventorying the deceased person’s assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining assets to the legal heirs according to California’s intestate succession laws.
  1. Letters Testamentary:
    • Purpose: Letters Testamentary are issued by the court when a person dies with a valid will. The will typically designates an executor or personal representative, and the court will appoint that person to administer the estate. The executor’s authority is derived from the will itself.
    • Executor: The executor is the person named in the will by the deceased to carry out their wishes regarding the distribution of assets, payment of debts, and other responsibilities. The court’s role is to confirm the validity of the will and appoint the executor.
    • Responsibilities: The executor’s duties include gathering and managing assets, paying debts, filing taxes, and distributing assets to the beneficiaries as outlined in the will.
  1. Letters Testamentary/Administration and Living Trusts:
    • If a living trust is properly funded and executed, probate will be avoided. This is because the living trust functions as an entity that does not need to be “proven” in a court of law. This allows assets to be distributed to beneficiaries in a streamlined fashion upon the trust creator’s death. Since probate is not required, letters testamentary/administration do not come into play. In the case of a living trust, the person who has a similar role to the executor or personal representative will be the “successor trustee” of the trust. 


In summary, the primary difference between Letters of Administration and Letters Testamentary in California lies in whether there is a valid will. Letters of Administration are issued when there is no will, and an administrator is appointed to handle the estate according to intestacy laws. Letters Testamentary are issued when there is a valid will, and the named executor carries out the deceased person’s wishes as outlined in the will. Both types of letters involve a legal process and court approval to ensure the proper administration of the estate. It’s important to consult with a Folsom probate lawyer when dealing with estate matters to navigate these processes correctly. If you have any questions about the probate process, please contact Thapar Law at 916-579-0605 or send us a message

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