Probate and Estate Planning Glossary

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

Bequest — The act of leaving property to someone in a will

Codicil — A legal modification or addition to a will

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

Devisee — A person designated to get property or money in a will

Estate — 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

Gift Tax — A tax on certain large money or property transfers that you give gratuitously during your lifetime

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

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

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

Intestate — A person who dies without a valid will

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; may also name someone to make medical decisions for the will maker if he or she becomes incapacitated; sometimes called a medical power of attorney, health care power of attorney, medical directive, health care proxy or advance directive

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

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

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

Probate — 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

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

Testator — A person making a will

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

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

Ward — An incapacitated person or minor child with a guardian or conservator

Will — 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