If you’ve been called upon to help administer the estate of a relative or friend who has passed away, you may find that financial institutions are unwilling to give you access to the deceased person’s accounts without a copy of Letters of Authority.  I received just such an email this week.  A lady’s husband had passed away and she was not able to access his accounts because the financial institution required a copy of the Letters of Authority for the probate of his estate.  So, what are Letters of Authority?

First, a little background about probate.  Probate is the court process that your “stuff” (real estate, bank accounts, etc.) go through when you pass away to the extent that you owned anything in your name when you died.  You see, while we are alive we buy/sell/transfer things with our signature.  But, after we’re gone, we can no longer sign to transfer our assets.  So, a Personal Representative is appointed during the probate court process, and the Personal Representative’s signature effectively substitutes for your own.  It is the Personal Representative’s signature that will ultimately distributed the estate assets to the estate beneficiaries.

So, back to our question – what are Letters of Authority?  Letters of Authority are the legal document signed by the probate court stating that the Personal Representative is the legal representative of the estate and authorized to sign on behalf of the estate.  That’s the main reason that financial institutions request Letters of Authority – because they want to make sure they are working with the legal representative of the estate, not just someone who *says* they are.

That said, I’ve seen many situations where the financial institution’s request was not valid, such as when no probate estate is needed because the deceased person had a fully funded living trust.  If you find yourself frustrated in handling a probate estate or dealing with financial insitutions’ where the deceased person had accounts, give us a call at 616-827-7596.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and charitable planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for “stuff” – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate, charitable, and asset protection planning for all generations (“young” and “experienced”), the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses, and pet planning.  He enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients centered on their family’s values, insights, stories and experiences.