Your Probate Vocabulary Cheat Sheet

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After a person dies, someone has to do things with that dead person’s remaining assets.  And to do those things, that someone has to go to the Probate Court and be appointed the legal representative for the dead person.  If you are that “someone,” when you start looking into what has to be done, you’ll see that Probate has a language of its own – which can be overwhelming.  So while lots of Probate work can be done without a lawyer, it is much more difficult if you don’t know what the terms mean.

This “Probate Vocabulary Cheat Sheet” spells out some frequently used terms that come up during Probate and what they mean:

Administration – The process of dealing with the assets and estate of a dead person who dies without a Will. The person the Court appoints for this is called the “Administrator”.

Annual/Final Return – A statement of the financial position of an Estate. This must be completed and filed annually with the Probate Court for some Estates.  In cases where an annual return is required, a final return is required when all of the assets of the estate have been distributed. Some wills and trusts also require that the beneficiaries receive returns.

Beneficiary – A person who inherits money from a dead person.  This can be under a will, from a trust, from an IRA or life insurance policy, etc.

Caveat ­– If a person believes that a Will that is being submitted to the Probate Court is not really the dead person’s Will, or if he or she believes the dead person didn’t know what he or she was doing when he or she signed the Will, or he or she believes the dead person was under the influence of another person, then that person will file a Caveat challenging the Will.  There are specific deadlines for when Caveats must be filed and limitations on who can file them.

Codicil – A document that amends a Will.

Custodian/Guardian – A person that is appointed to care for or manage the assets for the benefit of a disabled person or a minor child.

Death Certificate – A state form that is issued when someone dies.  You order the death certificates from the funeral home or from the Department of Vital Records.  A death certificate is required in some cases to Probate a Will and are also frequently needed to apply for life insurance proceeds or claim other assets.

Discharge – When an Executor or Administrator has completed all of his or her obligations as the representative of the Estate, he or she can Petition the Probate Court to be “Discharged” as the Executor or Administrator.  If the Probate Court, the beneficiaries or heirs, and the creditors of the person’s Estate all agree, then that representative can be discharged and his or her work for the Estate is over.

Estate – The assets a dead person owns at the time he or she dies.

Executor – The person named by a Will and appointed by the Probate Court to deal with a dead person’s assets. (A male is the Executor, a female is an Executrix.)

Guardian ad Litem – A person appointed by the Probate Court in certain cases where there’s a minor or a disabled person, or if there are no known heirs, to represent the interests of the minor, disabled person, or unknown heirs for the purposes of the Probate proceeding.

Heirs at Law or Heirs – Georgia law (and really every state’s laws) sets out an order of who from a person’s family inherits his or her assets, and in what order, if that person dies without a will.  Those family members are the “Heirs at Law.”

Interrogatories – A series of written questions for a Witness of a Will to prove he or she saw the will being signed.  This may be required to file a Will with the Probate Court in certain circumstances, especially if the Will is not “Self-Proving.”

Intestate – If a person dies without having a valid Will, he or she is “intestate.”

Inventory – A listing of all of the assets a person owned at the time of his or her death.  Sometimes this must be filed with the Probate Court. Regardless of whether it has to be, though, the Executor or Administrator should always make an inventory.

Letters of Administration – Like Letters Testamentary below, this is the piece of paper from the Probate Court that says that an Administrator (or Administratrix) is authorized to act on behalf of an Estate. Letters of Administration are issued by the Probate Court when a person has died without a Will and after someone submits a Petition for Letters of Administration to the Probate Court.

Letters Testamentary – The piece of paper from the Probate Court that says that an Executor (or Executrix) is authorized to act on behalf of an Estate.  Letters Testamentary are issued by the Probate Court after the Will and a Petition for Probate are submitted to the Court and the Executor (or Executrix) is sworn in by the Clerk of Court.

Personal Representative – A general term that means the Executor, Executrix, Administrator, or Administratrix – whichever is appropriate.  The Personal Representative is authorized by the Probate Court to act as the authorized representative of an Estate.

Petition – A document that is submitted to the Probate Court asking for something to be done.  For example, a “Petition to Probate Will in Solemn Form” is one kind of Petition that is submitted.

Probate – The process of taking a deceased person’s Will to the Probate Court and dealing with his or her assets after his or her death, under the authority of the Probate Court.

Testator – A man who wrote a Will (and a woman is called the “Testatrix”).

Trustee – A person named to be in charge of the management and distributions of assets of a trust for the benefit of the beneficiary/beneficiaries of that trust. A trust can be a free standing document or it can be set up under the terms of a will.

Will – A document setting out the distribution of assets remaining in a person’s name at the time of his or her death.  There are very specific requirements for what makes a Will valid under Georgia law (and the same holds true for all other states).

Year’s Support – If a person dies with a spouse or minor children, that spouse (or those minor children) can make a claim against the dead person’s estate for an amount of the assets that would allow him or her to continue to live in his or her normal standard of living for a year.