When I started law school it felt like the professors were speaking a different language. And in a way, they were. The legal profession uses so many terms that have very particular meanings, that even though lawyers tend to be very well spoken, it can be hard to understand what we are saying. A word can mean so many different things in different contexts. Take the word harbor for example. As a noun it is a sheltered area of water that is deep enough to anchor a boat in and as a verb it means to provide shelter. A person can harbor a criminal on their boat which is docked in the harbor. Sometimes words that people use regularly have a popular definition and a legal definition. For example, people often say someone is harassing them when they receive a few unwanted text messages or phone calls. Sure that can be annoying, but the behavior doesn’t meet the legal definition of harassment, which calls for behavior that goes far beyond the behavior of your average Joe with a texting problem. So how are you to know what means what? And how does this relate to National Estate Planning Week? The estate world is no different than the criminal or civil world. We have a vernacular all our own. Below is a quick reference guide for some commonly used terms and a non-legal speak definition; terms you might find in some of my other blog posts.
Decedent: The person who has passed away. It is a gender neutral term that allows us to respectfully refer to someone who has passed. A decedent can also be known as the Testator or Testatrix if they left a Will.
Probate property: This is the property that passes through the Will or through statute if there is no will. This is all property that does not pass in another manner or as non-probate property.
Non-probate property: This property is not controlled by the Will. This property passes by operation of law based on how something is titled, or by beneficiary designation. If a designated beneficiary dies before the decedent or the decedent fails to list a beneficiary, non-probate property becomes probate property and would now be subject to the Will or statute.
Executor/ Executrix: The world of estate administration still likes to identify some people by gender. Executor is the male form and Executrix is the female form, but they both perform the same duties regardless of their suffix, and they receive equal pay too. An executor/trix is responsible for gathering all of the decedent assets, paying all the debts, and distributing the property in accordance with the Will. That’s the cliff notes version.
Administrator/ Administratrix: See above. The only difference between an Executor/trix and an Administrator/trix is that the Administrator/trix was appointed in an Estate where the decedent did not leave a Will and the Estate is being administered in accordance with the intestate statute. Here is a bonus definition for you- The intestate statute is what takes over if you fail to leave a Will. Since it is not a one size fits all so to speak, if you want to control what happens to your assets on death, have a Will.
Probate petition: The document that is filed with the Register of Wills asking them to appoint a person as the Executor/trix or Administrator/trix. The original Will and an original death certificate are filed with it.
Short Certificate: This is the document issued as a result of the probate petition. This is the document that shows that the Executor/trix or Administrator/trix has the power to perform his or her job.
Death Certificate: A document issued by a medical doctor stating cause of death and other vital statistics.
Fiduciary: A catch all term for someone who holds a legal relationship of trust with another person or persons. For a more in-depth description, check out the archives from National Estate Planning Week, 2015 “What is a Fiduciary and How do I Pick One?”
Beneficiary: A person who receives a benefit from something. A beneficiary can refer to a person receiving something through a Will, or a non-probate asset such as life insurance or a 401(k).
Heir: An heir is someone who is entitled to take a decedent’s property according to the intestate statute. Many times an heir and a beneficiary are the same people. However, if a person chooses to disinherit a child, the child is an heir but not a beneficiary.
If you don’t understand a term being used, ask! It is important to know what is being said and why.
Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning and Estate Administration.
As a bonus for anyone who is a grammar geek, the plural of Executrix or Administratrix is?
Answer: The plural form of Executrix is Executrices. The plural form of Administratrix is Administratrices or Administratixes.