Glossary of United States Probate Terms

This glossary provides simplified definitions of words commonly used in probate and estate administration proceedings. It is not to be used for any legal purposes and is not a legal dictionary. ARB has explained these words simply to assist our clients.
Abstract
An abstract is a summary that contains only the pertinent points of a longer text. Sometimes abstracts are compiled into bound books or volumes.
Administration
Administration is the authority given to the administrator to settle the estate. Also refers to the probate process for intestate estates.
Administrator (-trix)
When no will exists (intestate), the court appoints an administrator (male) or administratrix (female) to handle the estate proceedings.
Affiant
A person who signs an affidavit and swears to its truth before a Notary Public or some person authorized to take oaths, like a County Clerk.
Affidavit
An affidavit is a legal written statement made under oath.
Affidavit of Heirship
An affidavit of heirship document is used to declare who the heirs of a deceased person are. It is commonly used to establish ownership of personal and real property when the deceased has not left a will. An affidavit of heirship is used to establish ownership of property when the deceased failed to execute a will. The affidavit of heirship may be filed with the deed records of the county in which the property lies. In its basic form, the affidavit of heirship begins by stating under oath that there is a relationship between the people mentioned in the document, referred to as affiant and heirs, and the decedent.
Affinity
Affinity is a relationship by marriage.
Ancillary Probate
When a decedent passes away and the person owned property in their sole name at the time of their death in another state besides the state where they permanently resided, a separate probate action will need to be filed in the state where the property is located. This is referred to as an ancillary probate.
Apostille
An "apostille" is a form of authentication issued to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Convention of 1961. A list of countries that accept apostilles is provided by the US State Department. If the country of intended use does not participate in the Hague Convention , documents being sent to that country can be "authenticated" or "certified".

The Office of the Secretary of State provides apostille and authentication service to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals on documents that will be used overseas. Types of documents include corporate documents such as company bylaws and articles of incorporation, power of attorney, diplomas, transcripts, letters relating to degrees, marital status, references and job certifications, home studies, deeds of assignments, distributorship agreements, papers for adoption purposes, etc. The U.S. State Department provides general information about document authentications and apostilles under the Hague Convention of 1961 .
Appraisal
An itemized valuation of real or personal property.
Appraiser
An impartial person who estimates the value of the personal or real property of the estate.
Assets
Property in the hands of an heir, executor, or administrator, that is sufficient to pay the debts or legacies of a deceased person. Has monetary value; can be sold for money or is money. Real Property - this is real estate such as houses or land. Personal Property - everything other than real estate (cash, bank accounts, stock, furniture, etc.)
Attest
To attest is to witness, offer testimony, or to certify that a copy is genuine.
Attorney-in-Fact
This is the name given to a person who has been granted power of attorney.
Beneficiary
A person who is to receive a legacy or share of an estate under the terms of a will / trust.
Bequeath
Bequeath is the act of assigning personal property in a will.
Bequest
A bequest is the personal property assigned in a will.
Bond
In most probate cases, the court required the administrator, (and sometimes the executor, guardian, appraiser, and trustee) to post a bond to ensure that he would properly complete his duties. The bond required that a fee be paid to the court if duties weren't adequately performed. One or more persons were required to co-sign the bond as "sureties."
Chattels
A legal term which encompasses most items that you would find in your home and extends to include your pets and your car. The term does not cover any items that you use for business purposes. Otherwise known as 'possessions'.
Claimant
A person making a claim.
Claims
Claims are the petitions, registers, accounts, or appeals filed with the court.
Class gift
A class gift in a will is one in which property is given to a group of beneficiaries determined by their relationship to the testator (will maker). The wording used may be to the testator’s siblings, nieces and nephews, sisters or brothers, for example. There is an element of uncertainty present in that at the time the will is executed, it is not known who will be alive when the testator dies to be included in the class and thereby considered to be beneficiaries under the gift. When a class gift is made, only the surviving members of the class alive at the testator’s death will inherit. For example, if the testator has seven sisters, three of which die before the testator, only the four sisters alive at the testator’s death will inherit the gift.
Codicil
A document that amends, rather than replaces, a previously executed will. Each codicil must conform to the same legal requirements as the original will, such as the signatures of the testator and, typically, two or three (depending on the jurisdiction) disinterested witnesses.
Community property
All real and personal property acquired by a couple after marriage, belongs to both husband and wife and is called community property. Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington are community property states.
Consanguinity
Consanguinity is a close relation.
Conjoint will
A conjoint will is made and signed by two or more persons together.
Conservator
A conservator is a person appointed to manage the affairs of one considered incompetent; protector.
Conservatorship
A conservatorship is a legal determination by the court placing the interest of a vulnerable adult in the care and protection of another.
Contest
To contest a will means to dispute the will.
Creditor claim
A claim required to be filed in writing, in a proper form by an individual or entity owed money by a person who has died. Notice of the need to file a creditor's claim in the estates of a person who has died must be printed in a legal advertisement giving notice of death. The creditor then has only a few months to file the claim, and it must be in a form approved by the courts.
Custodian
Under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, the person appointed to manage and dispense funds for a child without court supervision and accounting requirements.
Decedent
A person who has died.
Descendents
Those persons who are in the blood line of the ancestor, such as mother, child, grandchild.
Devastavit
A devastavit is a mis-management and waste by an executor, administrator, or other trustee of the estate and effects trusted to him, as such, by which a loss occurs.
Devise
Devise is to transfer real property through a will.
Devisee
A person named in a will to receive real property (a devise).
Distribution
Distributions refer to the manner in which the deceased's possessions are allocated. At the end of the probate process, the assets (money) are given to the heirs who are entitled.
Encumbrance
Any claim or restriction on a property’s title.
Entitled
Persons who will receive assets from an estate; usually a court gives an order to name those who are entitled to inherit.
Escheat
Eventually an unclaimed inheritance escheats to the state where the estate was probated. This happens when a missing heir does not come forward and no heirs or legatees of the missing heirs petition for the property to be released to them. That time deadline varies from state to state, but states generally try to afford a missing heir a reasonable number of years to come forward and claim his inheritance. California, for example, allows an heir to reclaim escheated property by filing a petition with the probate court and serving it on the state Attorney General. Once satisfied the heir is who he says is and is entitled to the property, the court orders the county auditor to withdraw the money from the treasury and give it to the heir.
Estate
The total value of everything that you own at your death. Your ‘free’ estate is the term used to describe the assets capable of passing under the terms of your will. This therefore covers all assets not dictated to pass by any other method (for example land held as “joint tenants” (defined below) would not form part of your free estate as it would automatically pass to the surviving co-owner). Your residuary estate is usually the bulk of your estate and comprises all that is left of your free estate after debts, taxes and any legacies have been paid.
Ex Parte
Latin that means “by or for one party.” Refers to situations in which only one party appears before a judge.
Executor (-trix)
The person (executor = male; executrix = female) who has been named by the testator of the will to manage the estate.
Expert witness
One qualified to testify in court proceedings. ARB employs court qualified expert witnesses in matters relating to kinship determination.
Fiduciary
The fiduciary is a person who is holding assets for another. In probate, this might be the executor, administrator, guardian, or a trustee.
Final account
The final account is the final accounting of the estate and how it was distributed.
Forensic
Something for court use; a forensic genealogist produces genealogical documentation and testimony to be used by courts in determining heirship and entitlement of heirs.
Genealogy
The study of family ancestries and histories. A genealogy is a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, group, etc.
Guardian
A person who is appointed by someone who has parental responsibility for a child under 18, to have parental responsibility for that child until they reach 18 in the event of their death. The appointment of a guardian need not be made in a will. However, an executed will fulfills the legal requirements of appointment and ensures that it is recorded together with the rest of your wishes.

Parental responsibility is the legal term for the rights and responsibilities which a parent or guardian has in relation to a child.
A guardian is the person appointed by the court to manage the affairs of a minor or someone incapable of handling his or her own affairs.

A child refers to a natural or adopted child but does not include a step-child.
Guardianship
A guardianship is a court ordered transfer of legal responsibility to a specific adult for the physical care and protection of a minor and/or the assets of a minor.
Guardian Ad Litem
Latin for “guardian at law.” When a person involved in a suit cannot adequately represent his or her own interests, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to protect the person's interests. Unlike typical guardians or conservators, guardians ad litem only protect their wards' interests in a single suit. Generally, courts appoint guardians ad litem to represent legal infants and and adults who are actually or allegedly incapacitated. Courts most frequently appoint guardians ad litem in parents' disputes over custody of their children. For example, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requires states to appoint guardians ad litem for children in abuse or negect proceedings.
Half blood
People who share only one ancestor are said to be of the half blood.
Heir
An heir is a person entitled to inherit property after a death if the decedent did not leave a will. Heirs may include children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. If someone dies without leaving a will, state intestacy laws decide the inheritance order and the size of the shares. Although intestacy laws differ by state, spouses and children usually inherit first.

MISSING HEIR
- the estate knows of the heir, but the individual's whereabouts are unknown.
- the estate knows of the heir, but believes the heir is not entitled.
- the estate knows of some heirs, but is unaware that there are additional heirs
In each example, the heir will not receive their inheritance unless a specialist such as ARB is able to locate the heir and establish to the satisfaction of the court the identity of the heir and that the heir is rightfully entitled to inherit.

UNKNOWN HEIR
- the estate knows of no relatives of the decedent.
- perhaps the decedent left a Will, but all immediate family members named in the Will are deceased and no records are available to the estate to find the more distant next-of-kin. Sometimes there is no Will and little information about the decedent or any family members. A specialist such as ARB will conduct research to identify all next-of-kin of the decedent.
Heirs-at-Law
The relatives of a person; usually refers to relatives of a person who has died.
Heir Location Services
Services conducted on behalf of an heir or potential heir that are intended to secure an inheritance for the heir or potential heir. Such services include: collecting proof of heirship, seeking a hearing to present proof of heirship, and presenting proof of heirship at the hearing.
Heirship Order
(Also known as KINSHIP) - An order from a Court naming the relatives who are entitled to inherit and the share each relative is to receive.
Holographic will
A holographic will is entirely in the testator's handwriting. If someone else writes on it, it is invalid. This will is not witnessed. (See will.)
Inherit
Receive something from a person (usually after the person is deceased).
Inheritance
The practice of passing on money, property, titles, debts, rights and obligations upon the death of an individual.
Intestate
The description of a person who has died without a will. This could be wholly (where no valid will was left) or partially (where there was a valid will but it failed to dispose of all the testator’s assets). ‘Intestacy’ is the name given for the situation in which a person’s estate is not distributed by a will but, instead, by law. This is governed by s.46 Administration of Estates Act 1925.

Inventory
An inventory is an itemized list of property in the estate and an appraisal of its value. Inventory documents may include real estate, personal property, guardians, conservators, partnerships, minors' estates, appraisals, appraisers warrants, and reports. In intestate cases the inventory is very important as it may describe the land, tools, slaves, and other personal property at the time of death. These records are sometimes transcribed in the will books or in separate volumes, but the originals may be in the probate packet.
Issue
A person's children or other lineal descendants such as grandchildren and great- grandchildren. It does not mean all heirs, but only the direct bloodline.
Joint tenants
The term used to describe a form of property ownership where the ownership is collective and the specific shares of each owner are not defined. When a co-owner dies, their share of the property automatically passed to the other co-owners.
Kinship Hearing
Your kin is your family. Kinship is the broad term for all the relationships that people are born into or create later in life that are considered binding in the eyes of society. The process by which you establish that you are related to the decedent is known as a Kinship Hearing.
Legacy/bequest
A gift made in a will. This could be of a named item or property (known as a specific legacy) or a sum of money (known as a pecuniary legacy).
Legatee
A legatee, in the law of wills, is any individual or organization bequeathed any portion of a testator's estate. For example, Bob's will leaves a car to his friend, Mary. Mary isn't his heir, as she's not married to Bob or related to him by blood or adoption, but she is his legatee because she received an item from him in his will. A legatee may be a business, charitable organization or other agency; some states refer to a legatee as a "devisee."
Letters of administration
Letters of Administration refers to the formal document from the court granting authority to handle the affairs of the estate.
Letters testamentary
The formal instrument of authority and appointment granted by the proper court to an executor (one designated in a will to manage the estate of the deceased) empowering that person to execute the functions of the office.
Mass Mailing
Letters sent to groups of people, such as everyone of a certain name. These mailings often involve payment of some fee for information about the family or information about assets. In many cases, this type of mailing involves some form of fraud or misinformation.

ARB DOES NOT EVER SEND OUT MASS MAILINGS. ARB DOES NOT CONTACT A PERSON AND THEN TRY TO FIND AN INHERITANCE FOR THAT PERSON.
Minor’s Compromise
A Minor’s Compromise is when an adult signs on behalf of a child so the child can receive money. The law doesn’t allow the child to sign until s/he becomes an adult.
Moiety (kinship)
Each of two parts into which a thing is or can be divided.
Next-of-kin
A person’s next of kin are all those living persons standing at the same closest degree of consanguinity (blood relationship) to the person.
Parcener
A parcener is a joint heir.
Per Stirpes
The method of distributing an estate in which a group of people (such as the grandchildren whose parent is deceased) receive a share as if they were one person. For example, if a decedent had three children, one of whom had already died leaving issue, the estate would be divided into thirds, with each living child receiving a one-third share, and the issue (children) of the deceased child dividing a one-third share equally amongst themselves.
Personal Effects
Personal belongings (such as clothing, pictures, mementos); personal effects may have little value as "assets," but may be important to relatives.
Personal Representative
A person who manages the legal affairs of a decedent in probate. If the decedent had a will, then the personal representative is known as the Executor (if the Executor is female, Executrix). If the decedent did not have a will and the assets are being distributed according to laws of intestacy, then the personal representative is known as the Administrator (if the Administrator is a female, Administratrix).
Petition
To begin the probate process, a petition must be filed with the court. Typically
this is done by one of the deceased individual’s heirs. It often includes names,
relationships, and residences of heirs. The petition generally begins the legal probate process. Additional petitions may be filed in other localities where he owned property or resided. The petition may name the heirs of the deceased, their relationship, and sometimes their residence. Heirs and other interested parties can petition the court throughout the probate process. The petition documents include letters testamentary, letters of administration, guardianship, appointment or change of guardian, redress for misuse or waste of property, list of heirs, and renunciation.
Probate
Probate relates to all matters and proceedings pertaining to the administration of estates, whether there is a will (testate) or not (intestate). The purpose of probate administration is to ensure that any final bills and expenses of the decedent are paid, including any taxes owed, and any claims by creditors settled. Probate administration can include probate of wills, intestate estates, when the decedent has died without a will, and ancillary probate administration, when the decedent has died with assets located in another jurisdiction. Remaining assets are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the decedent's will, or if the decedent died without a will, or “intestate,” the decedent's estate will be distributed to the decedent's heirs as defined under laws governing intestate succession.
Probate fees
Probate fees refer to the compensation paid to the estate attorney in a probate case.
Probate Researcher
Probate researchers work to trace next-of-kin by making connections between people who are not linked in an obvious or straight-forward linear relationship. This allows heirs to be found for inheritances which would otherwise go to the state. Probate researchers are also called heir searchers, and forensic genealogists.
Prove
To prove a will means the evidentiary process validating that will.
Public Administrator
Employed at the county level, a public administrator acts as executor to handle the affairs of someone who has died with no known or available relatives, executor or friend. At times the public administrator may be instructed by a court to assume similar duties for a living person when no conservator or guardian is available. Nearly every county in every state utilizes a county public administrator, even if they have different titles. In most counties, the public administrator is an appointed position.
Publications
Notices are published so that creditors, and others with an interest in the estate, have an opportunity to collect debts or contact the legal representatives. They include announcements, advertisements, notices to heirs, notices of sales, and notices to creditors. Some state laws require the publications in specified newspapers for two or three weeks.
Register of Wills
The Register of Wills is the name of the office with probate jurisdiction in some localities.
Residuary
A person entitled to share in the ‘residue’ of an estate. Usually worded as ‘the remainder of my estate I give upon trust to the following person(s)...’
Residue
The remainder of the estate after distribution of specified items/land.
Rightful Heirs
These are the heirs who are appointed to inherit an estate when an ancestor dies without a will.
Settlements
Settlements are the final accounting of the estate and how it was distributed
Share
The part of an estate which an heir will receive. The number of shares is not the same as the number of heirs as some heirs may receive only part of a share. When heirs are not all related in the same way, some may receive shares "by representation." The laws are different in each state as to how shares are determined.

Example of representation under California law:
There are four sons of the deceased person; there are no daughters; there is no wife.
- Each son would be entitled to one-fourth of the estate.
- Two sons are living: they each will receive one-fourth of the estate.
- One son died and left one child: that grandchild will receive one-fourth of the estate.
- One son died and left two children: each of the grandchildren will receive one-eighth of the estate.
Sibling
A brother or sister.
Sine prole (s.p.)
Sine prole is Latin, meaning "without offspring."
Subpoena
A document ordering an individual to appear in court and give testimony.
Succession
Succession is the process of settling an estate based on Spanish community property law, followed especially in Louisiana.
Sui Juris
Of full age and capacity.
Surety
A surety is a person who agrees to be liable for another's debts and obligations in case of default.
Surrogate
The Surrogate is the court officer with jurisdiction over probate and guardianship matters in New Jersey and New York.
Tenancy in common
The term used to describe a form of joint property ownership where each owner’s share is distinct from the others. Unlike with a joint tenancy, in this situation each co-owner can freely deal with their own distinct share during their lifetime and on death i.e. by will.
Testament
Technically, the testament is the document in which the testator distributes (bequeaths) personal property. This term is often dropped from "last will and testament."
Testate
Testate is when an individual dies having left a Will.
Testator
The term used to refer to a person who has made a will. The feminine for testator is sometimes known as a “testatrix” although many acknowledge that this is a little archaic.
Trustee
A person/persons or corporation which holds or administers assets for the benefit of a third party, known as a beneficiary. If a trust arises under the terms of your will (for example if there is a beneficiary who is too young to inherit their legacy at the date of your death) then your executors will often, but not always, be the persons named as trustees of the trust.
Venue
The county or district within which a civil or criminal case must be heard.
Whole blood
People descended from two common ancestors are said to be of the whole blood.
Will
A legal written document executed by a person that gives instructions directs distribution of assets upon death. It usually describes the individual’s land and property
and includes names of heirs, witnesses, and guardians. This term is often used in place of "last will and testament." (See also: codicil, conjoint will, holographic will, joint will, nuncupative will, mystic will, unofficious will, or unsolemn will)
Witness
A witness is a person who attests to actions or events personally seen.