Letters of Administration

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A formal document issued by a court of probate appointing a manager of the assets and liabilities of the estate of the deceased in certain situations.

Courts are often asked to rule on the management of a deceased person's estate. Generally, this is a routine matter for probate courts, which are created specifically for this purpose. Individuals generally determine the distribution of their estate in a will, which usually specifies an executor to carry out its directions. But where the decedent has left no will or the executor named in a will is unable or unwilling to serve, the courts must appoint an administrator. This appointment is made by issuing a short document called letters of administration, which is a decree that serves as evidence of the administrator's authority.

When an individual dies intestate (without a valid will or with no will at all), issues must be resolved involving the disposal of the decedent's property, the settlement of debts and claims against the estate, the payment of estate taxes, and in particular the distribution of the estate to heirs who are legally entitled to receive it. These matters are resolved by following the laws of descent and distribution, which are found in the statutes of all states. Essentially, these laws divide the decedent's property according to well-established rules of inheritance based on blood relations, adoption, or marriage. In the case of a person who has died intestate, the probate court appoints an administrator to distribute the property according to the relevant descent and distribution statutes.

Even though a decedent may leave a valid will that names an executor, there is no guarantee that the executor will carry out the duties involved. An executor may be unable or unwilling to serve, for example, because of illness or other commitments. For this reason wills often name an alternate executor as a safeguard. When the named executor cannot or will not serve and there is no alternate executor, the court will intervene to appoint an administrator. Generally, one or more relatives of a decedent will submit their name in a petition for letters of administration, and the court will rule on each submitter's fitness for the duty and on the merits of competing claims, if any.

Until the court can appoint someone with full responsibility for the estate, it may choose to appoint a temporary special administrator. This individual is granted limited authority over specified property of the decedent, as opposed to having the authority to direct the disposition of the entire estate. When a valid will exists, any administrator appointed by the court is bound to direct the estate according to the terms of the will.


Executors and Administrators.