Plain Language Estate Planning Dictionary

by David Disraeli

Lawyers and the courts tend to use their own language when discussing the legal matters involved in estate planning. I thought it would be helpful to have a “plain language dictionary” to help demystify some estate planning terms.

david disraeli


  1. Estate – this refers to all the assets and liabilities associated with a deceased person. You can’t sue a dead person but you can sue their estate
  2. Probate – this refers to the process of “settling an estate” or carrying out the wishes of the deceased. Most people equate probate with going to court. While there must be some court involvement, it can be held to a minimum. Probate in short ultimately involves transferring assets according to a will. The probate courts are also used to hear contests about wills, the removal of trustees and the appointment of guardians.
  3. Intestate or intestacy refers to what happens if a person dies without a will or the will is determined to be invalid. This can happen even if there is a will but the relatives can not find it. In all states there is a statute that controls who receives assets when one dies without a will. You could say that everyone has a will – either the one they created or the on the state creates.
  4. Guardian Ad-Litem is a person appointed by a court to look after the interests of a minor for purposes of legal procedures. This is not the same as a guardian or trustee.
  5. Trustee – this is the person who has the power over a trust to manage and distributed the assets inside the trust. Normally the trustee has very broad powers but not always.
  6. Attorney in fact is the terms used to describe a person who holds power of attorney for another person.




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