Several times after a family member has died, someone approaches me and says, “I went to the bank to try to take care of some bills and they won’t let me. They say they want to see my letters testamentary.” Letters testamentary are the document issued to the Personal Representative (PR) by the Superior Court after filing and granting a petition to open probate. This is the only way to obtain letters testamentary.
If you find yourself in this situation, you may first want to determine if opening probate and obtaining letters testamentary is truly required. A probate attorney can ask the right questions to figure this out, including but certainly not limited to:
What kind of property is in the estate? Does it include real estate?
What is the total value of the estate?
If the decedent was married, was the property community or separate property?
Have arrangements been made for non-probate transfer of any of the property?
What debts did the decedent have?
Is there a will and/or a trust?
If it turns out probate is required, it is fortunately not nearly as onerous a process in Washington as it is in some other states. If the estate is solvent, i.e. the assets are greater than the debts, the PR receives the letters testamentary from the court, and from there can take care of the business of the estate with minimal court oversight. However this does not grant the PR free rein with the estate assets. There are standard rules to follow and timelines to comply with, and failing to do so can result in liability for the PR. Although people sometimes try to get through this process on their own, it is far more advisable to have a probate attorney help draft the documents, act as navigator, and deal with the unexpected bumps along the road.