Glossary of United States Probate Terms
Accounts - The records of financial dealings for the estate.
Administration - Authority given to the administrator to settle the estate. Also refers to the probate process for intestate estates.
Administrator (-trix) - When no will exists (intestate), the court appoints an administrator (male) or administratrix (female) to handle the estate proceedings.
Administrator cum testamento annexo (administrator c.t.a.) - The court appoints an administrator when no executor is named in the will or the executor is unable to serve.
Administrator de bonis non (administrator d.b.n.) - A successor administrator appointed by the court to handle the remainder of the affairs of the estate (such as upon the death of the administrator).
Affidavits - A legal written statement made under oath.
Affinity - Relationship by marriage.
Agnate- A relationship through the males of the family.
Appearance docket - An index of all cases coming into a court.
Appraisal - An itemized valuation of real or personal property.
Attest - To witness, offer testimony, or to certify that a copy is genuine.
Beneficiary - One who will receive benefit from the estate.
Bequeath - The act of assigning personal property in a will. (See testament.)
Bequest - The personal property assigned in a will.
Bond - The legal instrument used to commit the bondsman to pay a certain fee if an agreement or act is not carried out.
Bondsmen - A person who pledges a sum of money as bond in another's behalf.
Calendar - A list or schedule of cases to be presented before the court.
Case file - These are all of the various papers that have been created throughout the probate process. These are bound together and archived by case number; they are also called estate files or probate estate papers.
Codicil - An addendum to a will.
Committee - A group of people charged with specific duties for a limited time.
Common law - The body of unwritten law developed in England based on custom and precedent, rather than by statute.
Community property - Based on Spanish custom, all real and personal property acquired by a couple after marriage, belongs to both husband and wife. Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington are community property states.
Consanguinity - A close relation.
Conservators - A person appointed to manage the affairs of one considered incompetent; protector.
Contest - To dispute the will.
Curtesy - Based on English common law, a husband's right, upon the death of his wife, to a life estate in land that the wife owned while living, and only applicable if a child had been born to the couple.
Decedent - The person who is deceased.
Degree of relationship - A legal term referring to the degree (generations) of two persons who descend from a common ancestor but not one from the other.
Devise - To transfer real property through a will.
Devisee - The person receiving real property through a will.
Devisor - The person transferring real property through a will; testator.
Distributions - The manner in which the deceased's possessions are allocated.
Docket - A list or schedule of cases to be presented before the court.
Dower rights - The rights that a non-owner spouse has in the real property.
Entail - To limit the inheritance of real property to only those in a specified line of descent, such as to the oldest male in each generation.
Escheat - In cases where no one is entitled to inherit, property reverts to the state.
Estate - The transfer of property to the state in cases where no one has been determined qualified to inherit.
Estate file - The file containing information about the property left by the deceased to be dispersed between the surviving heirs.
Executor (-trix) - The person (executor = male; executrix = female) who has been named by the testator of the will to manage the estate.
Feme sole - A single woman.
Fiduciary - A person who is holding assets for another. In probate, this might be the executor, administrator, guardian, or a trustee.
Final account - The final accounting of the estate and how it was distributed; settlement.
Guardian - The person appointed by the court to manage the affairs of a minor or someone incapable of handling his or her own affairs.
Guardianship - The court appointment of an adult to take care of the child or the child's property.
Heir - A person who inherits property upon the death of the owner.
Holographic will - A will hand written by the testator.
Imprimis - Latin, meaning "in the first place."
Infant - A minor not yet of legal age, not necessarily a young child.
Intestate - When an individual dies without leaving a will.
Inventory - An itemized list of real or personal property.
Issue - Offspring; biological children; legitimate descendants.
Legacy - A gift (bequest) of real or personal property by way of a will.
Legatee - A person receiving real or personal property by way of a will.
Legator - A person giving personal property by way of a will; devisor; testator.
Letters of Administration - A formal document from the court granting authority to handle the affairs of the estate.
Lineal - Being in a direct line from a male or female ancestor.
Locus sigilli (L.S.) - Latin, meaning "in place of the seal."
Loose papers - A collection of various papers, separate from book records.
Majority - Of full legal age.
Minor - A person who has not yet reached full legal age.
Next friend - A person acting in behalf of a minor or one unable to represent himself.
Notices - Notices are published so that creditors, and others with an interest in the estate, have an opportunity to collect debts or contact the legal representatives.
Nuncupative will - An oral will.
Parcener - A joint heir.
Partition - To divide into parts or shares.
Per capita - The method of distributing an estate in which each person receives an equal share.
Per stirpes - The method of distributing an estate in which a group of people (such as the grandchildren whose parent is deceased) receive a share as if they were one person.
Petition - A formal, written request made to a court.
Primogeniture - The first-born son inheriting the intestate estate.This practice was based on English common law.
Probate - All matters and proceedings pertaining to the administration of estates, whether there is a will (testate) or not (intestate).
Probate case file - These are all of the various papers that have been created throughout the probate process. These are bound together and archived by case number; they are also called case files, estate files, or probate estate papers.
Probate fees - Compensation paid to the attorney
Probate packet - Probate case files placed together in an envelope or tied together with a string.
Prove - The evidentiary process validating a will.
Publication - Notices are published so that creditors, and others with an interest in the estate, have an opportunity to collect debts or contact the legal representatives.
Receipt - A written statement that funds, property, or legal documents have been received.
Register of wills - The name of the office with probate jurisdiction in some localitities.
Register - A bound book in which official matters are recorded by the court clerk.
Relict - A widow or widower.
Relinquishment - To waive one's rights; surrender.
Settlements - The final accounting of the estate and how it was distributed; final account.
Sine prole (s.p.) - Without offspring.
Succession - The process of settling an estate based on Spanish community property law, followed especially in Louisiana.
Successor administrator (-trix) - Administrator appointed by the court to handle the remainder of the affairs of the estate (such as upon the death of the administrator); administrator de bonis non (administrator d.b.n.).
Surety - A person who agrees to be liable for another's debts and obligations in case of default.
Surrogate - The court officer with jurisdiction over probate and guardianship matters in New Jersy and New York.
Testament - Technically, the document in which the testator distributes (bequeaths) personal property. This term is often dropped from "last will and testament."
Testamentary - Pertaining to a will.
Testate - When an individual dies having left a will.
Testator (-trix) - The person making the will or testament.
Trustee - A person who holds legal title to property for the benefit of someone else.
Videlicet (viz.) - Latin, meaning "namely."
Widow's allowance - State statute governs the share of real or personal property which a widow can claim from her husband's estate. Often this supercedes other claims and debts to the estate.
Widow's election - A widow's right to either accept what was granted to her by her husband's will or to accept the share granted to her by state statute.
Will - Technically, the document in which the testator distributes (devises) real property. This term is often used in place of "last will and testament."
Witness - A person who attests to actions or events personally seen.
- Black, Henry Campbell. Black's Law Dictionary: Definitions of Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern. 4th edition. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing, 1951.
- Evans, Barbara Jean. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians. 3rd edition. Alexandria, Virginia: Hearthside Press, 1995.
- Greenwood, Val D. 3rd edition. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing C., Inc. 2000. Of particular interest is the chapter, "Understanding Probate Records and Basic Legal Terminology."
- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 11th edition. Springfield, Massachusetts: 2003.
- Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004. Of particular interest are the chapter, "Estates Galore," plus the "Glossary" at the end of the book.