Clients frequently ask us about letters testamentary, letters of administration, certificates of administration, or certificates of qualification.  All of these documents refer to the same thing.  In this article, we will discuss what these are, how you get them, and alternatives to them. For simplicity, we will call all of these documents letters testamentary.

What Are Letters Testamentary?

Letters Testamentary are simply court orders that give legal authority to manage the estate or assets of someone who has died.   The person who receives the authority from the court is known as the “executor,” “administrator,” or “personal representative.” (For purposes of this article, we will refer to all of these individuals as personal representatives.) When we get questions about these documents, it is almost always from someone who has tried to access a financial account of someone who has died.  Instead of being given access, they were told they needed to obtain these letters as legal proof that they were entitled to the funds in the account.

[Related Reading: 10 Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies]

Different states call letters testamentary by different names in different situations and circumstances.  Some call them letters, others call them certificates, and others call them orders.  In our experience, financial institutions are not familiar with the names used by the state they are in.  Therefore, it is very common for a bank to ask a client to obtain “letters of administration” when the state they are in actually issues a “certificate of administration.”

What Do Letters Testamentary Contain?

Letters Testamentary are not long-winded legal documents. Instead, they are normally short and contain only a few important pieces of information.  Although it differs in each state, most Letters Testamentary contain the following:

  1. Personal Representative’s Name: The name of the person appointed to manage the estate.
  2. Court Information: Details of the court that issued the Letters.
  3. Deceased’s Information: The name of the deceased individual and their date of death.
  4. Legal Authority: A statement indicating that the personal representative has the legal authority to manage the estate.
  5. Bond Requirement: A statement about whether a bond is required and has been posted.
  6. In some cases, Letters Testamentary may have an expiration date. After that date, the personal representative’s authority ceases.

How do you get a Letter Testamentary?

There is only one way to get a letter testamentary. You have to be appointed as a personal representative by a court. This process is sometimes referred to as qualifying as a personal representative.  Typically, the court where the person who died resided is the court that appoints a personal representative.  However, the process of getting appointed is not always simple.  The court will almost always want proof of death, along with payment of fees and sometimes the posting of a bond.  A bond is a financial guarantee that the person being appointed will fulfill their obligations as the personal representative.   The court may also want proof that there is no objection from any of the beneficiaries.

[Related Reading: The Probate Process in Virginia: An Overview]

Alternatives to Letters Testamentary

If you have been told you need to obtain Letters Testamentary or similar documents, don’t immediately run to the court to get them!  This is one of the biggest mistakes we see people make in dealing with estates.  In certain situations, an alternative may work just as well and cost far less in terms of fees, taxes, and time.

The most likely exception is for estates that are below a certain amount.  This amount differs by state.  In Virginia, it is $50,000.00 (not including land or real property), and in West Virginia it is $100,000 (including land and real property).  If the total amount of the estate is less than this, you may qualify to use an expedited process outside of the court system.

You also do not need letters testamentary when there is a joint owner of a financial account, a beneficiary, POD, or TOD on an account. Before qualifying as a personal representative of an estate, carefully check for any of these.

[Related Reading: Basic Dos and Don’ts For Agents and Executors]

Letters Testamentary, letters of administration, certificates of administration, and certificates of qualification play a crucial role. They also provide legal authority to the appointed personal representative. They also ensure that the estate of a deceased loved one is managed and distributed correctly.

If you find yourself in a situation where any of these documents are needed, please give us a call.  We would be glad to guide you through the process and ensure that everything is handled in accordance with the law. In the midst of the grief and other challenges that come with losing a loved one, having a knowledgeable legal professional by your side can make all the difference.


Joshua E. Hummer, Esq. is the founder of Relational Estate & Elder Law, and he has been a practicing attorney for over 15 years. While experienced in many parts of the law, Josh specializes in estate planning, estate administration, and elder law. He is licensed in both Virginia and West Virginia. Josh’s passion lies in helping people gain peace of mind about the future through holistic legal planning. When he isn’t meeting with clients or crafting legal documents, Josh enjoys spending time with his lovely wife, Jill, and their four vibrant children.


Disclaimer: The information you obtain in this post is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. This blog shares general best practices when navigating Virginia or West Virginia law, but you should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.