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Letters from the Surrogate’s Court: No Stamps Needed!

Letters from the Surrogate’s Court: No Stamps Needed! by Tom Sciacca

{Read in 5 minutes}  Attorneys speak their own language; within the legal profession, Trust & Estates attorneys speak their own dialect of that language. As an attorney practicing in the Surrogate’s Court, I very often have to deal with provisions of law which are not widely known, and rules of procedure that confuse even some experienced attorneys that do not practice in Surrogate’s Court. One of those little quirks is the concept of Letters.

Letters refers to an official court document that the Surrogate’s Court will issue evidencing the appointment of a fiduciary (such as an Executor, Administrator, Trustee, or Guardian). Think about it: if you were, for example, a bank employee or someone looking to purchase a property that belonged to an Estate, you would want some proof that the Executor had the authority to close the bank account or sell the property. Letters offer just that proof. They come under the raised seal of the Surrogate’s Court that issued them and have the force of a Court Order.

There are many, many different types of Letters. Let me acquaint you with some of the most common:

Letters of Administration

The Surrogate’s Court will issue Letters of Administration to the Administrator of the Estate of someone who dies intestate. The Court appoints the Administrator based on blood relationship to the deceased. The Administrator will handle all matters dealing with the affairs of the deceased.

Letters Testamentary

The Surrogate’s Court issues Letters Testamentary to the person that the deceased has named in their Will as their Executor. By definition, this person died with a Will and the Surrogate’s Court is hearing this as a probate proceeding. Like the Administrator, the Executor also handles all matters dealing with the affairs of the deceased.

Preliminary Letters Testamentary/Temporary Letters of Administration

Sometimes Estates become litigious or otherwise experience delay — sometimes related to the delayed issuance or service of a Citation in a proceeding. The Surrogate’s Court may have a matter before it for several months, if not years.

During this time the Court can appoint either a Temporary Administrator or a Preliminary Executor (depending on whether the deceased died with a Will or intestate), who will receive these types of Letters. These Letters allow the Preliminary Executor or Temporary Administrator to handle almost all of the affairs of the Estate. However, there are often limitations that the Court places upon them, most commonly preventing distribution to the Estate’s beneficiaries or sale of major assets such as real property.

Letters of Trusteeship

The court issues Letters of Trusteeship to the Trustee of a Trust named in the deceased’s Will. Some common examples of this are Trusts that parents create for children until they reach a certain age or Trusts for the benefit of a disabled individual who is receiving needs-based government entitlements. Even Trusts for the benefit of pets (although clients are well advised to consider a less formal option than setting up a trust, if appropriate for the situation).

The Trustee will need Letters to handle the affairs of the Trust, such as opening the bank accounts and spending the funds in accordance with the terms of the Will. It’s important to note that the Surrogate’s Court only issues Letters of Trusteeship for Trusts created under a Will; these are not requested if the deceased left a Revocable Trust.

Letters of Guardianship

The Surrogate’s Court handles certain types of guardianships. Sometimes the Court may need to appoint a Guardian for the benefit of a minor, or the Court may need to appoint a Guardian for an adult who suffers from an intellectual disability. These types of Letters are necessary to allow the Guardian to make medical decisions for their ward or for a Guardian to add minor children to their health insurance, or even enroll them in schools.

So the Surrogate’s Court is never going to become your “pen pal,” but the Letters you receive from the Court will be incredibly helpful. Therefore, it’s important to understand what the different types of Letters are, and under which circumstances the Court will issue them.

For more information on this topic, please contact me at (212) 495-0317 or by clicking here.