In an effort to help you understand the complex probate law world, we’ve compiled some legal terms you’ll encounter when seeking legal advice.

Administrator:  A person appointed by a court to serve as a personal representative for a person who died intestate (without a valid will) or if the executor named in the will cannot serve.

Community Property:  In certain states all property acquired during the marriage, except for inheritances or gifts received during the marriage by either marital partner.  Each spouse has a one-half ownership interest in community property.

Deed:  A document by which title to property is transferred from one party to another.

Estate Administration:  The process in which a decedent’s personal representative settles the affairs of the decedent’s estate (collects assets, pays debts and taxes, and distributes the remaining assets to hers; the process is usually overseen by a probate court.

Estate Planning:  Making arrangements, during a person’s lifetime, for the transfer of property to others on the person’s death.  Estate planning often involves executing a will or establishing a trust fund to provide for others, such as a spouse or children, on one’s death.

Executor:  A person appointed by a testator to serve as a personal representative on the testator’s death.

Fiduciary Relationship:  A relationship involving a high degree of trust and confidence.

Intestacy Laws:  State statutes that specify how property will be distributed when a person dies intestate (without a valid will).

Intestate:  The state of having died without a valid will.

Joint Tenancy:  The joint ownership of property by two or more co-owners in which each co-owner owns an undivided portion of the property.  On the death of one of the joint tenants, his or her interest automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant or tenants.

Marital Property:  All property acquired during the course of a marriage, apart from inheritances and gifts made to one or the other of the spouses.

Probate:  The process of “proving” the validity of a will and ensuring that the instructions in a valid will are carried out, including settling matters pertaining to the administration of a decedent’s estate and guardianship of a decedent’s minor children.

Probate Court:  A court that handles proceedings relating to wills and the settlement of deceased persons’ estates; probate law usually occurs in a county court.

Separate Property:  Property that a spouse owned before the marriage, plus inheritances and gifts acquired by the spouse during the marriage.

Tenancy in Common:  A form of co-ownership of property in which each party owns an undivided interest that passes to his or her heirs at death.

Testamentary Trust:  A trust that is created by will and that does not take effect until the death of the testator.

Testate:  The condition of having died with a valid will.

Testator:  One who makes a valid will.

Trust:  An arrangement in which title to property is held by one person (a trustee) for the benefit of another (a beneficiary).

Will:  A document directing how and to who the maker’s property and obligations are to be transferred on his or her death.