Probate Terminology

Probate Terminology Simplified and Expanded

Understanding the process of probate can be overwhelming, especially when you're not familiar with the terminology. In this guide, we'll break down and expand upon common probate terms to make it easier for you to navigate through the process.


Probate is the legal process of validating a deceased person's will and distributing their assets according to their wishes or state law. It involves identifying the assets, paying any outstanding debts, and transferring the remaining assets to the beneficiaries.


An estate includes all the assets, property, and debts a person leaves behind after their death. This may consist of real estate, personal property, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and any other possessions.


The testator is the person who creates a will, outlining how they want their estate distributed after their death.

Personal Representative:

The personal representative is the person named in the will to oversee the probate process, manage the estate, and ensure the testator's wishes are carried out. If no personal representative is named, the court will appoint one.


If there's no will or the named personal representative is unable or unwilling to serve, the court appoints an administrator to manage the estate during the probate process.


A beneficiary is a person or entity that receives assets or property from the deceased person's estate, as designated in the will or by state law.


An heir is a person who has a legal right to inherit property from a deceased person's estate when there is no will or when the will is not valid. Heirs are typically close relatives, such as a spouse, children, or parents.


When a person dies without a valid will, they are considered to have died "intestate." In this case, their estate is distributed according to state intestacy laws.


A person who dies with a valid will is considered to have died "testate." Their estate is distributed according to the provisions of their will.

Intestacy laws:

These are state laws that determine how an estate is distributed when a person dies without a valid will. The laws vary by state, but they generally prioritize spouses, children, and other close relatives.

Letters Testamentary:

These are legal documents issued by the probate court, granting the personal representative the authority to act on behalf of the deceased person's estate.

Letters of Administration:

These are legal documents issued by the probate court when there is no will, or the named personal representative cannot serve. They grant the administrator the authority to manage the estate.

Probate court:

This is a specialized court that oversees the probate process and resolves disputes related to the distribution of a deceased person's estate.

Will contest:

A will contest is a legal challenge to the validity of a will. It usually occurs when someone believes the will was created under duress, fraud, or undue influence or when the testator lacked the mental capacity to create a valid will.

By familiarizing yourself with these terms, you'll be better prepared to navigate the probate process and understand your rights and responsibilities. However, it's essential to consult with a probate attorney for personalized guidance on your specific situation.

No Lawyers and Not a Law Office

The information provided on this site is not intended to be taken as legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete, or up-to-date. Laws change rapidly, and Ellen Mitchel PA is not an attorney and cannot give legal advice, only sharing her experience with being a licensed Realtor specializing in probate for over 25 years. The law differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and is subject to interpretation by different courts.  Therefore, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area.