Glossary: Wills, Trusts, & Estate Planning

Plain-English definitions of common terms used in estate planning and probate.

Here are some legal terms you may run across as you plan your estate or serve as an executor.

Administrator

The person appointed by the court to manage an estate when there is no valid will; called a personal representative in some states. An administrator has the same duties as the executor of a will.

Applicable Exemption Amount

A lifetime federal estate and gift tax exemption. Transfer of property up to the applicable exemption amount generally will be exempt from the unified estate and gift tax. The applicable exemption amount is $5,250,000 for deaths in 2013, $5,340,000 for deaths in 2014 and $5,430,000 for deaths in 2015.

Advance Medical Directive

A legal document setting out a person's wishes for end-of-life healthcare, in case someday the person is unable to communicate those wishes. Also called a living will.

See: What is a Living Will?

Attorney-in-Fact

The individual who is given authority, in a document called a power of attorney, to act on behalf of another.

Beneficiary

Someone who receives benefits or funds under a will, trust, or contract, such as an insurance policy.

Codicil

An addition to a will, adding to or changing the terms of the will.

Community Property

A system of laws used in nine states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin) to determine the ownership interest of a husband and wife in property acquired during marriage.

Durable Power of Attorney

A legal document that lets someone designate another person, called an agent or attorney-in-fact, to act on his or her behalf. The agent's authority remains in place even if the person who created the durable power of attorney becomes incapacitated.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

A legal document that gives someone the authority to act on another person's behalf with regard to health care decisions.

Estate

The property or assets a person owns or has rights to.

See: Property & Debts Of The Estate

Estate Tax

A tax imposed at one's death on the transfer of property. The federal government imposes estate tax on very large estates; some states also impose an estate tax.

Executor

The person named in a will to manage the deceased person's estate; called the personal representative in some states. The executor collects the property, pays any debt, and distributes the remaining property according to the terms of the will.

See: What Are The Executor's Duties?

Fiduciary

A person or institution legally responsible for the management, investment, and distribution of funds. A fiduciary has a legal obligation to act in the best interest of the person for whom he or she is serving.

Grantor

The person who creates a trust and transfers assets into it for the benefit of another. Also called settlor or trustor.

Gross Estate

The total property or assets held by an individual at death, as defined for federal estate tax purposes.

Guardian

The person legally entrusted with the care of a minor child.

Incapacity

The lack of ability to act on your own behalf.

Inter vivos

In Latin, "between the living." Sometimes used instead of "living trust," a type of trust created by a living settlor to hold property for the benefit of another.

Intestacy, Intestate

The term applied when an individual dies without a valid will.

Irrevocable

Describing something that cannot be changed or terminated--for example, certain kinds of trusts.

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship

A way of holding title to co-owned property. At the death of one of the co-owners, the other will become the sole owner of the property, regardless of what may the deceased owner's will says.

Living Trust

A revocable trust established by a grantor during his or her lifetime in which the grantor transfers some or all of his or her property into the trust.

See: What is a Living Trust?

Living Will

A legal document setting out a person's wishes for end-of-life healthcare, in case someday the person is unable to communicate those wishes. Also called an advance medical directive.

See: What is a Living Will?

Marital Deduction

A deduction allowing for the unlimited transfer of property from one spouse to the other free of federal estate and gift tax.

Minor

A person who has not yet reached the legal age of majority, 18 in most states.

Personal Representative

Another term for executor or administrator.

Power of Appointment

A right given to another in a document, such as a will or trust, that allows the other to decide how to distribute property. The power of appointment is "general" if it places no restrictions on who may receive the property. A power is "limited" or "special" if it limits the eventual distributees.

Probate

The court-supervised process of wrapping up a deceased person’s financial affairs. The court appoints an executor, rules on the validity of the will, and supervises the executor, who pays debts and taxes and eventually distributes the property to inheritors.

See: Probate

Testamentary Trust

A trust that is created at death, by the terms of a will.

See: What is a Testamentary Trust?

Trust

An arrangement under which one person, the grantor, creates a trust, transfers property to it, and appoints a trustee. The trustee manages trust property for the benefit of another, called a beneficiary.

See: Trusts

Trustee

The person named in a trust document who manages the property held in trust. A trustee can be an individual or a corporate fiduciary.

See: The Trustee

Will

A legal document controlling the disposition of a person’s property at death.

See: Wills

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