Occasionally, we hear clients tell us probate law can be very confusing. Whether it’s the legal process, terminology, dealing with family members, or potential expense can frustrate most and occasionally cause families who should work with a lawyer to try and go it alone and divvy up the deceased loved one’s assets. Often, however, at some point in the process (often when dealing with a financial institution), the family is told they need to obtain Probate Letters (usually called either Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration). Sometimes the name itself causes confusion.
Nearly each week, our office receives a call from a deceased person’s family member who has been told by a bank, title company, or insurance company that they need a “letter” to get the assets of the deceased transferred to their name. When they call our office to ask if we can write the letter for them, they’re usually disappointed to learn the “letter” really isn’t a letter at all.
In essence, the “letter” is really a certificate by the court that the person named in the letter has the legal authority to deal with the assets of the deceased. In a situation where a deceased person left a Last Will and Testament that named a person as an executor, the letter is referred to as a Letter of Testamentary. In a situation where the deceased did not have a will but an administration has been opened by a court, the letter is referred to as a Letter of Administration. For purposes of this blog, we will simply refer to both as a “letter.”
So, how do you get a letter? While the process in Texas isn’t exactly as simple as hiring a lawyer to write the letter, fortunately, the answer isn’t all that complicated.
The first step is hiring a lawyer. In most cases, unless you’re a licensed attorney you can’t represent yourself in front of a court when dealing with a decedent’s estate. Hiring an attorney who routinely deals with probate matters is important because those attorneys will be able to quickly and easily explain the legal process, have office processes that will allow the case to move quickly, and (if they typically work in the jurisdiction where the decedent died, they’ll know the judges and courts in the area so they can help you navigate those waters).
The second step is going to court. Yes, you’ll have to go to court. Texas law provides that, whether the decedent had a Last Will or not, to have someone appointed as the personal representative of the estate, you must file an application and hold a court hearing. Thankfully, the process can be relatively easy and quick in many instances. That said, however, you should understand that the “letter” you need is only issued to the person who is appointed by the court as the personal representative (i.e., the person who has been appointed by the court as being in charge of the estate property).
Once you get the Letter, you can go from there. Without giving you a full law school course on probate law in Texas, you should understand that being named the personal representative and having a Letter issued to you makes you subject to handling the estate consistent with Texas laws. You will be able to obtain property or cash from someone that owes the decedent or estate, but you will have to operate the estate pursuant to Texas law. The best advice you can get is that given to you above, in Step One. Hire a qualified and experienced lawyer. For more information on probate in North Texas, or for assistance in these issues, call our offices at (469) 607-4503.
ATTORNEY CHRIS PARVIN is Board Certified in Estate Planning & Probate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Mr. Parvin is the Managing Partner of the Dallas, Texas law firm of Parvin Law Group, P.C. and serves as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Texas A&M University School of Law. Mr. Parvin can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parvin Law Group, P.C. is a Concierge Law Firm in Dallas, Texas with attorneys practicing law in the fields of Estate Planning, Probate, Business Law and Family Law.