Letters of Administration and the Importance to the Probate Process.
The probate process involves a mountain of documents, which are easily confused by personal representatives, beneficiaries, and everyone involved. In Florida, one of the most important of these documents is known as the letters of administration. Known in some locations as letters testamentary, these mark the official onset of the personal representative’s (sometimes called executor) duties.
Many people are not familiar with letters of administration and may be surprised to discover just how important they are when administering an estate. If you’re confused about this document and how it relates to your role as personal representative, it’s important to learn as much as possible: whom it involves, why is it issued, and what it could mean for the probate process. We’ve outlined all this and more below.
What Do Letters of Administration Accomplish?
The main function of letters of administration is to designate the personal representative who is responsible for overseeing the administration of the estate in question. Sometimes referred to as the executor or the fiduciary of the estate, this person is typically a close family member of the person who passed away. Often, this designation involves the decedent’s child or surviving spouse, although it’s also possible to designate an attorney or other third party.
Letters of administration are necessary for the personal representative to carry out their statutorily required duties. The general duties of the personal representative as outlined by Florida Statute 733.602 states:
(1) A personal representative is a fiduciary who shall observe the standards of care applicable to trustees. A personal representative is under a duty to settle and distribute the estate of the decedent in accordance with the terms of the decedent’s will and this code as expeditiously and efficiently as is consistent with the best interests of the estate. A personal representative shall use the authority conferred by this code, the authority in the will, if any, and the authority of any order of the court, for the best interests of interested persons, including creditors.
When Are Letters of Administration Required?
Letters of administration are needed in formal administration, which can be a complicated and complex process. With summary administration, however, the step of the appointment of a personal representative and issuance of letters of administration is often not required, given the simplified nature of this process. Summary administration is available for estates in which the value of the decedent’s property excluding exempt property, totals $75,000 or less or the decedent has been deceased for greater than 2 years.
How Are Letters of Administration Obtained?
Letters of administration are exclusively issued by the Florida Probate Courts. The process for obtaining letters of administration begins with the previously expressed preferences of the now-deceased individual, who may or may not have taken steps to designate a personal representative, such as stating a preference for this important role in a last will and testament. If the decedent stated their preferred appointment for personal representative in a Will, then getting approved is usually straightforward. However, without such direction, it is up to the would-be personal representative to petition for letters of administration.
Without such direction as to the personal representative, such as would be found in a Will, the process may begin with obtaining a death certificate and getting in touch with any relatives or others who might be affected by the administration of the estate. A petition is filed with the court for the appointment of a personal representative. This is referred to as the petition for administration. It will include a variety of supporting documents, including (if available) the deceased individual’s will.
The probate court is responsible for verifying the authenticity of the decedent’s will and examining any accompanying documents. If no legal concerns are revealed at this time or objections to the appointment of the personal representative, the probate court will proceed with formally appointing a personal representative. This person must qualify based on Florida’s probate laws; basic eligibility standards include residency and mental competency. Florida statute 733.303 and 733.304 outline the requirements to be appointed personal representative:
Persons not qualified.—
(1) A person is not qualified to act as a personal representative if the person:
(a) Has been convicted of a felony.
(b) Has been convicted in any state or foreign jurisdiction of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an elderly person or a disabled adult, as those terms are defined in s. 825.101.
(c) Is mentally or physically unable to perform the duties.
(d) Is under the age of 18 years.
Nonresidents.—A person who is not domiciled in the state cannot qualify as personal representative unless the person is:
(1) A legally adopted child or adoptive parent of the decedent;
(2) Related by lineal consanguinity to the decedent;
(3) A spouse or a brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece of the decedent, or someone related by lineal consanguinity to any such person; or
(4) The spouse of a person otherwise qualified under this section.
Officially, appointing a personal representative involves issuing letters of administration. These letters clearly designate who will act as the personal representative while also verifying that this person has the full authority to act on the estate’s behalf.
What Happens If a Personal Representative Is Not Named?
As mentioned previously, some probate cases are complicated by a lack of a Will. When there is no clear designation as to who will act as the personal representative, this duty will typically fall to the most closely related surviving family member. The spouse of the deceased person is strongly preferred, although it’s also possible for the estate’s heirs to agree to appoint a specific person as personal representative. If nobody applies, the court may appoint somebody who is deemed capable, such as an adult child or surviving sibling. Florida Statute 733.301 outlines the preference for the appointment of a personal representative:
Preference in appointment of personal representative.—
(1) In granting letters of administration, the following order of preference shall be observed:
(a) In testate estates:
1. The personal representative, or his or her successor, nominated by the will or pursuant to a power conferred in the will.
2. The person selected by a majority in interest of the persons entitled to the estate.
3. A devisee under the will. If more than one devisee applies, the court may select the one best qualified.
(b) In intestate estates:
1. The surviving spouse.
2. The person selected by a majority in interest of the heirs.
3. The heir nearest in degree. If more than one applies, the court may select the one best qualified.
(2) A guardian of the property of a ward who if competent would be entitled to appointment as, or to select, the personal representative may exercise the right to select the personal representative.
(3) In either a testate or an intestate estate, if no application is made by any of the persons described in subsection (1), the court shall appoint a capable person; but no person may be appointed under this subsection:
(a) Who works for, or holds public office under, the court.
(b) Who is employed by, or holds office under, any judge exercising probate jurisdiction.
Get Help With Securing Letters of Administration
The probate process can seem confusing or even frustrating at times, but it’s more orderly than many people realize. In Florida, the letters of administration set the tone for the successful administration of estates, so the importance of this document cannot be overstated. With this and all other aspects of the probate process, it’s important to work with a trusted attorney, who can provide much-needed guidance every step of the way. Please contact our office at 904-733-9080 if you need help securing Letters of Administration.