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Illinois Probate: What are “Letters of Office”?

LettersofAdmin

I frequently receive phone calls that start something like:

“My dad died and I’m executor in the Will.  I’m trying to collect his checking account, but his bank said I need to have an attorney get me letters of office.  Is that a letter you can write for me?”

Despite its name, “Letters of Office” is not really a letter.  Instead, it is a one-page official certified document issued by a probate court after a probate estate has been opened.  The steps necessary to obtain Letters of Office are the steps necessary to open an Illinois probate estate.  Letters of Office cannot be obtained without first opening a probate estate.  The Letters of Office document will have a raised seal and will be signed by the Clerk of Court.  In Cook County, it will be on yellow colored paper and costs $4 each.

There are 3 basic versions of “Letters” for decedent’s estates:
    • “Letters of Office” (also called “Letters Testamentary”) – issued to appointed executor when the executor is designated under a valid Will;
    • “Letters of Administration” — issued to administrator when the decedent died without a valid Will (intestate estate); or
    • “Letters of Administration with Will Annexed” — issued to administrator when the person or entity appointed by the court as representative was not named as executor in the Will (e.g. when the designated executor is deceased).
The basic idea behind Letters of Office is that they serve to inform third parties (e.g. financial institutions, creditors, etc.) that someone has official authority to act on behalf of the decedent’s probate estate.  The Letters of Office will tell those third parties:
    • Decedent’s name
    • Probate venue (i.e. county court)
    • Probate case number
    • Name of the executor(s) or administrator(s)
    • Official capacity of the representative (i.e. executor/administrator and independent/supervised administration)
    • Date of death
    • Date letters obtained

The clerk’s office will issue one original Letters of Office to the representative after the estate is opened.  This should be reviewed carefully for accuracy.  The representative can then order from the court clerk’s office as many certified copies as are necessary to present to everyone who will need to see the document (e.g. banks, transfer agents, title companies, etc.).  These official copies are typically only valid for up to 60 days after issuance.  After they expire, as long as the estate is still open, additional copies can be obtained from the clerk as needed.

Returning to the original question, Letters of Office might not be necessary to claim dad’s account.  If the total value of probate personal estate assets is under $100,000 in value, and certain other important conditions are satisfied, then a small estate affidavit might work in lieu of obtaining Letters of Office (read about Small Estate Affidavits).

For more information on Illinois Probate, please read our Illinois Probate Estate Primer and our Illinois Probate FAQ.