Letters of administration are legal documents issued by a probate court giving an individual the right to administer the estate of someone who has recently died. These documents are required when the deceased has not left a will determining who should be the executor of the estate. There are other circumstances when letters of administration are necessary, usually when an executor is named but cannot perform the duties entrusted to him or her. Administrators are usually chosen by the court based on laws of descent, and are responsible for not only fulfilling any legal or monetary obligations of the estate, but also for distributing inheritance or property among the relatives or friends of the deceased.
If a person who dies has left a will naming an executor, and this executor can perform the duties entrusted to him or her, then letters of administration are not required. The letters generally come into play when the deceased is intestate, which means he or she has not left a will or the one that was left is invalid. A letter of administration is essentially a decree by a surrogate court or probate registry that appoints an individual to look after the estate and dispose of its assets according to relevant laws concerning descent and inheritance.
In certain circumstances, a will may have been left behind that names an executor who is either unwilling or unable to perform the duties required. An executor may choose not to administer the estate, or he or she may be too ill to do so. It is also possible that the named executor is under the age of 18, or that there may be some question of the identity of the executor. Letters of administration may be required in such circumstances.
Anyone who wishes to administer an estate must submit a petition for letters of administration to the appropriate probate court. The court will determine who the administrator should be in the case of multiple petitions. It generally bases its decision on the laws of descent, which usually favor a living spouse first and is followed by next of kin. Letters of administration are often required as proof by banks, governmental agencies, or other institutions before they will allow anyone to handle the assets of the deceased.
The main task of the administrator of an estate is to distribute the property or assets of the deceased to those who are entitled to it. Administrators must follow the applicable laws of descent and inheritance when distributing the assets of the estate. They also are responsible for settling any debts of the estate, any legal claims made against it, and paying estate taxes.