Important Terms & Definitions

legal definitionsDealing with the loss of a loved one and settling his or her estate can be an emotional and confusing time.

The law in general and California law in particular has a long history of using special terminology and Probate cases are no different. It’s easy to confuse terms or to misinterpret key words that sound the same but have very different meanings.

To help you stay informed so that you can fully understand what’s going on and where you stand, here are some important definitions.

Probate: The process under California court supervision of the transfer of assets from a person who has died to his/her heirs

Will: A document in which a person states who should receive his or her possessions after he or she dies. This document guarantees that assets of more than $150,000 will be distributed under California probate court supervision. The reason people typically draft a Will instead of a Trust is to save money and/or is he or she is unconcerned with the heirs having to deal with probate court

Trust: A relationship between parties in which one, the Trustee or Fiduciary has the power to manage the assets and the other, the Beneficiary, has the privilege of receiving the benefits

Heir: A person who has the legal right to receive the property or assets of someone who dies

Beneficiary: A person or charity that receives a benefit from a trust

Primary Beneficiary: A person or charity who receives proceeds from a trust or insurance policy before any other

Contingent Beneficiary: Someone who receives proceeds upon the occurrence of a specified event such as the death of the Primary Beneficiary

Fiduciary: A person whom the law obligates to act solely on behalf of the person he/she represents in good faith

Decedent: The person who died

Trustee: A person or organization that has been given responsibility for managing someone else’s property or assets through a trust

Executor: Someone who is named in a Will as the person who will make sure that the instructions in the Will are properly followed and carried out

Custodian of the Will: A person in possession of the will at the time of the Decedent’s death

Personal Property: Cash and material objects except for real estate

Real Property: Real estate including buildings and land

Community Property: All Personal and Real Property acquired during marriage

Separate Property: All Personal and Real Property acquired before marriage, by gift, or by inheritance

Decedent’s Estate: All Real and Personal Property owned at the time of the Decedent’s death including Life Insurance policies

Testate: Having left a valid will

Intestate: Having left an invalid will or no will at all and/or property not disposed of by a will

Intestate Succession: The order or hierarchy of who inherits Personal and Real Property when someone dies without a will.

In conclusion, it’s important to understand this common terminology when working with your attorney, understanding court documents and appearing in court.

Some legal professionals simply assume that you understand these legal terms and will use them loosely without defining them. It’s important to ask for clarification if you’re not sure you understand.