Frequently Asked Questions

What are Letters Testamentary?  

Letters testamentary, short certificates, or letters of administration are all terms for the legal documentation that proves someone has been appointed executor (or personal representative or administrator) of an estate.  Without this type of document, you will not be able to conduct most business on behalf of the estate.  To obtain these documents, you must either meet the requirements for a small estate under Delaware or Pennsylvania law or open a probate estate.   

Why won’t the bank talk to me about my loved one’s accounts?  

Each financial institution has different requirements as to the proof required to act on behalf of a deceased person’s behalf.  We have experience with many banks and financial institutions and can help ensure that you have the documentation you need to manage the estate’s needs, complete probate, and distribute inheritances to the appropriate beneficiaries.   

How do I find out about which assets my loved one owned?  

Locating all of the assets that someone owned without the benefit of their direction can be very challenging.  Executors need to determine whether their loved one had any life insurance, retirement accounts, stock certificates, investment accounts savings bonds, annuities, saving or checking accounts, and other assets of value.  Finding these can be a huge challenge, and, once they are located, getting access to them can be an even greater challenge.  At Elle Van Dahlgren Law, LLC, we help families who have lost a loved one locate these types of assets by obtaining your authorization to reach out to the various financial institutions on your behalf.  We find that taking the challenge out of negotiating with the financial institutions provides a great service to our clients and takes a lot of the stress out of being the executor.  Our clients leave with ahuge weight lifted off their shoulders because we share the load with them.  

How long does probate take?  

In Delaware and Pennsylvania, the probate process usually takes between 1-2 years.  It can be as short as 8-9 months, or it can take much longer.  However, it is very rarely a “quick” process.  (This is why many people try to avoid probate with proper estate planning.) The reason it takes so long is that under state law, creditors have a specified period of time to come forward and claim that they are owed money.  Until the full amount of the debts are determined, it can be difficult to distribute money to beneficiaries.  This is especially the case where the executor does not know much about the decedent’s financial situation.   

Is probate expensive?   

In Delaware, each county charges a probate fee at the end of the process.  (New Castle and Kent Counties charge 1.75% and Sussex County charges 1.25%.)  Pennsylvania does not have a significant probate fee, but they do have an inheritance tax of between 0% (for spouses who inherit) and 12% (for more remote family members who inherit).  Planning for these fees and taxes can help minimize them and ensure that your loved ones receive more of that money.   

Is probate hard?  

Probate happens during the very emotionally difficult time after the death of a loved one.  Mourning the loss of a family member and dealing with legal matters relating to an estate can prove both financially and emotionally taxing.  There are many additional issues that can make the process even more challenging, such as:  

  • If a decedent passed away with significant debts to creditors 

  • If a decedent dies intestate (i.e., without a will)  

  • When conflicting wills or final wishes exist or other disputes arise about who should inherit  

  • When a decedent dies with a trust established but the beneficiaries of the trust are dissatisfied or don’t understand the terms  

  • If pre-existing family disputes are magnified due to the death of the loved one and subsequent distribution of the estate  

How can I avoid will contests if I am the executor?  

The best way to help ensure that your family does not fall into the trap of argument and discord about your loved one’s estate is to be transparent with the beneficiaries.  Explain to them the timeline when they can expect their distributions.  Talk to them about issues that arise and solutions that you are considering.  The majority of people who are upset about an estate’s administration are simply upset because they have been left in the dark and don’t know what to expect.  Communication and transparency can help resolve many of these conflicts.  

To make an appointment, please contact Elle Van Dahlgren Law, LLC by calling 302-407-5009 today.