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Common Legal Terms & Definitions


A person licensed to practice law and represent clients in legal matters.


The act of leaving property to someone in a will.


A person named to receive property or money in a will, trust, or insurance policy.

Civil Law

Legal matters concerning disputes between individuals or organizations, excluding criminal matters.


A legal modification or addition to a will.


A government institution with authority to adjudicate legal disputes and administer justice.

Criminal Law

Legal matters concerning violations of laws that are prosecuted by the government.


Used particularly in the probate context to refer to the person who has recently died.


The person or entity being accused or sued in a legal action.


A person designated to get property or money in a will.

Durable Power of Attorney

A legal document that allows an individual (the “principal”) to appoint someone else to handle their financial affairs if they become incapacitated.


In the probate context, the totality of a person’s assets, including real estate, personal property, and money.

Estate Planning

Making comprehensive arrangements for the transfer of your estate to others at death or in anticipation of death, including minimizing taxation.

Estate Tax

A tax on the distribution of very large estates after the owner’s death.


The person named in a will to carry out the deceased’s wishes, manage the estate, and distribute assets according to the will’s instructions.

Guardian Ad Litem

A person appointed by the court to represent the interests of a minor or incapacitated person in a probate or other legal proceeding.

Guardian or Conservator

A person appointed in a legal proceeding to assist a minor or incapacitated person with matters such as asset management, financial administration, or personal care.


A person designated by state law to inherit property from a person who dies without a will.


A person without the mental capacity to manage his or her own affairs.


A person who dies without a valid will.


The final decision or ruling made by a court in a legal matter.


The authority of a court to hear and decide cases within a particular geographic area or over certain types of cases.


A synonym for attorney, someone who provides legal advice and representation.

Legal Aid

Legal assistance provided to individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney.

Legal Guardian

A person appointed by the court to make legal decisions for a minor or incapacitated individual.

Life Insurance

An insurance policy on a person’s life payable at death to his or her named beneficiary.

Living Will

A legal document designating the level of medical intervention the person prefers if he or she becomes unable to express his or her wishes, including provision of life-sustaining treatment.


A legal claim or right against property as security for a debt or obligation.


A voluntary process in which a neutral third party helps parties in dispute reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

Nonprobate Asset

An asset like a jointly owned bank account or jointly owned real estate parcel that automatically passes to another person upon the owner’s death outside of any will and without a legal proceeding.

Notary Public

A person authorized by the state to witness the signing of legal documents and administer oaths.

Personal Representative

A person appointed by the court to manage a decedent’s estate throughout the probate process; in some states called an executor or administrator.


The person or entity bringing a lawsuit against another party.

Power of Attorney

A legal document designating another person to act on your behalf in financial and legal affairs immediately or should you become incapacitated in the future.


The court proceeding that pays debts and distributes property of a decedent as spelled out in his or her will.

Probate Asset

An asset that is part of a decedent’s estate and is available to pay valid debts or be distributed to beneficiaries pursuant to instructions in a will.

Small Claims Court

A court that handles disputes involving relatively small amounts of money, usually without the need for attorneys.

Special-Needs Trust

A trust designed to manage assets, usually money, for a beneficiary with disabilities in such a way that eligibility for government assistance is not compromised.

Statute of Limitations

The time limit within which legal action must be taken on a particular claim or offense.


A legal document that compels a person to testify in court or produce evidence.


A person making a will.


A legal vehicle for holding and managing assets, usually money, by a third party on behalf of a beneficiary; may be revocable or irrevocable.


The person with the legal duty to manage trust assets for the benefit of the beneficiary.

Uniform Probate Code (UPC)

A comprehensive set of laws governing the probate process, which has been adopted in some form by many states in the United States.


An incapacitated person or minor child with a guardian or conservator.


A legally binding document executed by a person to direct disposition of his or her property at death; a will may also name a guardian for surviving minor children of the testator.