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Glossary of U.S. 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.

 

Administration

The management and settlement of an estate performed by a person under the authority of the court (see: administrator and executor). The process usually involves:

  1. The gathering of the decedent’s assets
  2. Payment of debts and creditor claims
  3. Distributing the remainder of the estate to those who are entitled
Administrator

A person who is authorized by the court to manage and settle the estate of a deceased person. In some states, this role is called a personal representative.

Beneficiary

A person or entity who is named in a will or trust to receive assets. In some situations, a beneficiary may be termed a legatee or devisee.

Bond

A form of insurance that protects the assets of the estate.

Claims

Claims are the petitions, registers, accounts, or appeals filed with the court.

Codicil

A document that amends, rather than replaces, a previously executed will.

Conservatorship

A legal proceeding in which a court places the interests of an incapacitated adult in the care and protection of another. In some states, this is called a guardianship.

Creditor claim

A request filed with the court by a person or entity who believes they are owed money by the decedent.

Decedent

The deceased person whose estate is being settled.

Distribution

The division of estate funds among those who are entitled to inherit.

Encumbrance

Any claim or restriction on a property’s title.

Escheat

The process by which assets revert to the government. This occurs when legal heirs have not been located or have not come forward.

Estate

All the money and property owned by a person at the time of death.

Executor

A person or entity designated in a will and appointed by the court to manage and settle the estate of a deceased person. In some states, this role is called a personal representative.

Fiduciary

A person or entity who holds assets for another.

Final account

A final report to the court that details the finances of an estate or trust.

Guardian Ad Litem

A person the court appoints to protect the interests of another person in a specific court case. Latin for guardian at law.

Heir

A relative determined by the court to be entitled to a share of an estate.

Heirship Hearing

A legal proceeding in which evidence is presented to determine the entitlement of heirs.

Heirship Order

A court decision that declares the entitled heirs and their respective shares in the estate. In some states, this is called a kinship order.

When a person dies without a valid will.

Inventory

An itemized list of assets including cash and appraised property.

Issue

A person’s legal descendents (i.e. children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.).

Kinship Hearing

The process by which a person establishes that they are are related to the decedent.

Legatee

A person or entity who is named in a will or trust to receive assets. In some situations, a legatee may be termed a devisee or beneficiary.

Letters of administration

A document issued by the court granting authority to handle the affairs of an intestate estate.

Letters testamentary

A document issued by the court granting authority to handle the affairs of a testate estate.

Next-of-kin

A person’s closest living relative or relatives.

Personal Effects

The decedent’s personal belongings that are not considered financial assets (i.e. clothing, photos, mementos, etc.).

Petition

A formal application made to a court in writing that requests action on a certain matter. To begin the probate process, a petition must be filed with the court.

Probate

The legal process in which a deceased person’s estate is settled and distributed.

Probate Researcher

A specialized area of genealogy that deals with identifying and locating the heirs to an estate and proving their right to an inheritance. Probate researchers are sometimes referred to as forensic genealogists.

Public Administrator

A county official who is appointed to administer an estate.

Share

The portion of an estate that an heir will receive as determined by state succession law or a decedent’s will.

When a person dies with a valid will.

Will

A legal document in which a person gives instructions for the distribution of his or her assets upon death.