Definitions of Common Terms in Wills
Lawyers use a lot of words when talking about wills, assuming that everyone knows their meaning.
But I realized early on that many people outside the legal community don’t understand what we’re talking about. Below are some words lawyers use when talking about Wills, defined in plain English.
- Testate: Dying testate means dying having made a valid Will. Wills allow you to direct how and two whom your property will be distributed after you die.
- Intestate: Dying intestate means dying without having a valid Will. If you die intestate, a statutory formula will dictate who will receive your property.
- Intestacy statutes: Intestacy statutes are state laws that dictate how to distribute the assets of a person who dies intestate. The intestacy statutes are inflexible and do not take into account your unique wishes or circumstances. Rather, they are the legislature’s best guess about how a person would distribute their assets if they had made a Will.
- Testator: A testator is a man who makes a will. Sometimes a woman who signs a Will is referred to as a testatrix.
- Will: A will is a legal document that contains instructions about how and to whom your property will be distributed after you die. Typically, Wills also name a guardian for minor children. Additionally, they appoint an executor to administer the estate in accordance with the testator’s last wishes.
- Codicil: A codicil is a supplement or amendment to an existing Will. A testator must execute a codicil with all the formalities of the Will itself.
- Attested will: An attested Will is a Will not written completely in the handwriting of the testator. To be valid, a testator must sign the Will, or direct another person to sign it in the testator’s presence. Additionally, at least two credible witnesses over the age of 14 must sign the Will in the testator’s presence.
- Holographic will: A holographic will is a Will that is completely in the handwriting of the testator or testatrix. There is no requirement that witnesses or a notary sign the document.
- Bequest: A bequest is a gift of specific property in a Will. A testator who makes a specific gift is sometimes said to have bequeathed the property or made a bequest.
- Testamentary Trust: A testamentary trust is a type of trust created in a Will. Testamentary trusts do not come to existence until after a testator dies.
- Decedent: A decedent is someone who has died.
- Administrator: A personal representative the probate court appoints to administer an estate when someone dies intestate.
- Executor: An executor is a person a testator selects to administer the estate in accordance with the Testator’s Will. A female executor is sometimes referred to as an Executrix.
- Heir: An heir is a person who will inherit your property if you die without a Will.
- Beneficiary: A beneficiary is a person or entity eligible to receive benefits under the Will
- Probate: Probate is the legal process of proving the validity of a will. Probate also refers to the process of administering a decedent’s estate.
- Non-Probate assets: Assets that do not have to pass through probate, such as life insurance policies, pension plans, 401(k) plans, IRA’s, joint bank accounts, payable-on-death accounts, and property owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship.
This article was originally published on December 11, 2009 and updated on April 29, 2021.