First, some definitions.

When I was in high school and college, I was a competitive debater.  Every debate began the same: by defining the terms of the debate.  While we are not engaging in a debate on this blog, it is nonetheless useful to start with definitions.

As we more fully delve into estate planning on this blog, it is useful to keep definitions in mind.  The definitions are not difficult but nonetheless, it may be possible that these are terms that are not encountered in your day-to-day life.

Beneficiary:  This is the person who is is designated to receive benefits (such as money or income) from an insurance policy, retirement policy, a will, or trust.

Decedent:  The person who has died.

Estate:  This is all the property, both personal and real, that a decedent has at the time of death.  This is similar to a probate estate, which is all the property within a given jurisdiction.  Thus, if a decedent has land in both Nebraska and South Dakota, the decent has a probate estate in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Executor:  This is the person responsible for collecting all the assets of an estate, distributing all the assets to the proper beneficiaries, paying all claims made to the estate (e.g. final medical bills), paying taxes, and appearing at probate proceedings if required by the jurisdiction.  Also called a personal representative.

Heir:  A person designated to inherit some or all of an estate when the decedent dies without a will.  The difference between an heir and a beneficiary is the existence of a will or other estate planning document.

Intestate:  Also intestacy.  This is the state law that controls inheritance when a decedent dies without a will.

Joint Tenancy:  Joint tenancy, as opposed to tenants in common, allows individuals to transfer property with ‘right of survivorship’.  This means each each co-tenant shares an undivided, fractional interest in the property.  As each co-tenant dies, the undivided fractional interest passes to the remaining co-tenants.  Joint tenancy is most commonly found among husband and wives.  Each spouse has an undivided 50% interest in the property.  When the first spouse dies, his 50% interest passes to his wife.  The wife then has 100% undivided interest in the property.  Joint tenancy is a non-probate transfer of property.

Non-probate property:  Property that is not subject to probate.  This can include, but is not limited to, insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts, property in trust, payable-on-death bank accounts, transfer on death deeds, and other such property that is paid directly to a beneficiary upon death from a source other than the decedent’s estate.  Non-probate property transfers automatically upon death and is not subject to probate proceedings.

Probate:  A proceeding in state court that is the administrative process for distributing an estate, whether by will or intestacy.

Tenants in common: Like joint tenancy, co-tenants share an undivided interest in property.  However, unlike joint tenancy, when a co-tenant dies, the undivided interest passes not to the other co-tenants but to those beneficiary/beneficiaries designated by the decedent.  For example, a husband and wife are tenants in common and each own a 50% undivided interest in property.  The wife’s will states that the beneficiary of her estate is the couple’s only child.  If the wife dies prior to her husband, her 50% interest does not automatically transfer to her husband (such as it would with joint tenancy), but rather, her 50% interest passes to her child.  Thus, the husband owns a 50% undivided interest and the child owns a 50% undivided interest in the property.

Testate:  Dying with a will.

Trust:  When property is held by a person or entity, called the trustee, for the benefit of beneficiaries pursuant to a written instrument known as a trust.  The trust articulates how the trustee can and should manage the trust assets for the beneficiaries.  There are many kinds of trusts and trust documents to list here.

Will:  A will is a document that details how a decedent wants his or her estate property to be distributed.  A will is subject to the probate process.  A will does not detail how non-probate property is distributed.

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