Questions often arise regarding a nominated executor’s authority to commence an action on behalf of the estate prior to the issuance of letters testamentary. These must be answered on a case-by-case basis.
In general, the authority of an executor “is derived from the will, not from the letters issued by the Surrogate” (see Matter of Yarm, 119 AD2d 754 [2d Dept 1986]). Thus, the executor’s duty to preserve estate assets arises immediately upon the testator’s death.
Pursuant to EPTL §11-1.3, a named executor of a will that has not yet been admitted to probate “has no power to dispose of any part of the estate of the testator before letters testamentary or preliminary letters testamentary are granted, . . . nor to interfere with such estate in any manner other than to take such action as is necessary to preserve it” (emphasis added). It is the language of this statute, and the similar words of its predecessor, Surrogate’s Court Act §223, that the courts have used as a guide in determining the circumstances under which named executors without letters may commence actions on behalf of the estate for which they are nominated to serve. Because the statute provides that a named executor may take actions that are necessary to “preserve” an estate, courts’ interpretations of the statute have established a fine line between those actions that are commenced for purposes of preservation, and those that constitute “active management” of estate affairs.