Your loved one has recently passed away. Banks and other agencies have tied up the decedent’s assets and told you that you need to get “Letters” (Letters of Administration) before they will speak to you or release bank funds. Just exactly what are Letters of Administration and do you really need them? What do you need to do if the bank wants Letters of Administration? Read on to learn more about getting Letters of Administration, when you really need Letters of Administration and when you don’t.

California is one of many states that offers a variety of alternatives to settle an estate. For large estates over $166,250, often a full probate is required to transfer assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries. There are alternative proceedings, however, that are available under California law to settle smaller estates with personal and/or real property values under $166,250. These alternative proceedings are called “small estate administration” which include court and non-court small estate affidavits. There are rules to decide if an estate is eligible for small estate administration or a small estate affidavit, depending on the type of assets owned by the decedent and whether they exceed a specified threshold value. California’s small estate administration requires that a decedent’s estate not exceed $166,250 in value, and that more than 40 days have passed since date of death.

Bank is Requesting Letters of Administration

Often clients contact our office indicating that the bank has requested Letters to release the bank funds. What is the process for getting Letters of Administration issued?

My immediate response to this type of inquiry is “Are you sure you need Letters of Administration?” Although getting Letters of Administration may not actually be necessary, usually some type of probate proceeding or legal documentation will be required to settle most estates. Unfortunately, despite what the bank often tells heirs, getting Letters of Administration (also called Letters Testamentary) in very small estates is completely unnecessary.

Bank Employees Don’t Understand California Probate

The first thing you need to understand is that often bank employees don’t know what is needed to settle a decedent’s estate. Banks provide their employees with manuals, policies and guidelines with a “one size fits all” mentality that can make accessing funds of the deceased difficult. Bank employees are not trained in the various nuances of California probate law. Bank employees are directed to reference the bank’s policy manuals in these types of situations. The bank teller has simply heard that “someone has died.” When they access their reference materials to determine how to deal with bank accounts when the owner has died, the manual says “ask for Letters of Administration or a court order.” Unfortunately bankers, bank tellers and other financial representatives do not fully understand the various probate options in California.

Letters of Administration are NOT always necessary or required by law to settle a decedent’s estate.

Important facts about settling a decedent’s estate in California:

  •  Letters of Administration are only issued in California’s full probate administration process.
  • In many situations, an alternative small estate probate proceeding or non-court affidavit is the proper procedure in California to distribute bank funds.

If the bank is requiring Letters of Administration before they will release bank funds, you need to assess whether this, in fact, is the only way funds can be released. Ask yourself 1) what is the total value of the estate and 2) what options does California law offer to settle an estate of this value? Don’t assume the bank employee understands California probate law. You may need to educate the bank as to your rights and remedies available under California law to settle the estate.

If you really do need Letters of Administration, contact A People’s Choice for low-cost, professional assistance. Alternatively, if you need help completing the necessary documentation for one of the alternative small estate administration proceedings, A People’s Choice can also help you. If you are not sure what your options are, we will be happy to direct you to legal resources that will help you get answers to your questions. Call us at 800-747-2780!

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