The Ohio probate process is often an unfamiliar landscape for those who must navigate it after the loss of a loved one. There are many legal terms to make sense of, including "letters of administration" and "letters testamentary."
"Letters of administration" refers to the document given to the personal representative, or administrator, of the estate of a deceased person who died without a will. This document gives that person legal authority to administer the estate of the deceased, including gathering assets, receiving payments due the estate, paying bills and taxes, and distributing property to heirs. (Letters testamentary give the same authority to a person who has been named as an executor in a will.)
You can understand why letters of administration are necessary. It's not enough that someone say they are speaking or acting on behalf of a decedent's estate. Someone might claim to be, or actually be, a relative of the deceased and attempt to collect an asset of the estate. If it turns out they do not have authority to do so, whoever turned over the asset could be liable to the estate. Letters of administration allow people and businesses to trust that they are dealing with the proper party. This makes the process of estate administration much easier.
Unlike letters testamentary, which are granted to the executor named in a will so long as they are suitable, a court needs to decide to whom it will grant letters of administration. You can well imagine that individuals might dispute the right to administer an estate, so there is an order the court must follow in granting authority.
If the deceased had a surviving spouse who is a resident of Ohio, they have first priority to be granted letters of administration. Otherwise, letters of administration will issue to one of the deceased's next of kin (under Ohio's intestate succession statute) who is a resident of Ohio. Regardless, Ohio courts will not appoint anyone unless the person is able to be bonded by an insurance company.
If no one meets the criteria to be granted letters of administration, or those who do meet the criteria are unsuitable for some reason or fail to petition the probate court for administration of the estate, the probate court will oftentimes appoint a local probate attorney as administrator.
Once you've been granted letters of administration, you need to begin carrying out your duties as administrator of the estate. These include notifying all interested parties, like heirs and creditors, of the opening of the probate estate; identifying, locating, valuing, and inventorying the assets of the estate; and paying legitimate debts and taxes owed by the estate. You may need to provide an accounting of your actions to the probate court. Finally, when all the estate's business is settled, you will distribute the remaining assets to the heirs-at-law of the deceased, since there was no will.
If all these tasks sound daunting, that's understandable. Recognize that you need not address all these duties without help. If you have been granted letters of administration, you are entitled to representation by a qualified Ohio probate attorney, whose fees are paid out of estate assets. Particularly if you are unfamiliar with the Ohio probate process, it's a good idea to have an experienced probate attorney help you. Not only can a lawyer help you get things done right, avoiding potential loss to the estate, but they can help the process wind up more quickly, meaning that heirs will receive their inheritance sooner.
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