December 1, 2011

Probate Terms

Probate law has certain terms that have specific legal meanings to them. The following are some of those terms.


Definition: The reduction of testamentary gifts. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: John Negligent decides to leave $50,000 in his will to his friend Larry Appleton with the balance, known as the residuary, to his other friend Homer Thompson. When John wrote his will, his estate was worth $500,000 in liquid assets. However, when John passed away, due to his profligate spending, his estate was only worth $30,000. California laws on abatement say that Larry is entitled to the remaining $30,000, not Homer. Prob C § 214029(a). However, the default rules of abatement can be altered in a will. Prob C § 21400. 


Definition:  Property that was listed in the person's will that is not in his or her estate at the time of their death. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: John Negligent states in his will that his friend James Rodgers is to receive his prized red Ferrari 308 GTS, which was featured in the movie National Lampoon's Vacation. (I have watched that movie about a thousand times now). John then sells his Ferrari to pay off his credit debt and passes away in a tragic hot air balloon accident shortly thereafter. John's gift of the Ferrari to James is therefore adeemed. James will then need to prove, in order to inherit replacement property from John's estate, that there is no sufficient proof to conclude that John intended for the gift to fail. Estate of Austin (1980) 113 CA3d 167. For example, James will argue that John sold the car because he intended to pay off his credit card rather than avoid having James inherit his Ferrari.


Definition: "A person to whom a donative transfer of property is made or that person's successor in interest." Prob C § 24.

Example: John Negligent leaves, in trust, a beach home in Santa Cruz for his nephew Bobby Smithson.

Class gift

Definition: A gift to all individuals matching the description of the class. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: John Negligent writes a will and leaves his entire estate to his "nieces." When John write his will, he has 4 nieces but at the time of his death he has only 1 niece. Since the devise was to a class of members, rather than individuals, the remaining niece is entitled to inherit the entire estate rather than split the estate with the heirs of the predeceased nieces.

In contrast, a gift made by Katherine Moore in her will to "Carrie D. Griffin and her sister, Anna M. Davis, equally divided" was found not be a class gift.  Estate of Moore (1955) 135 CA2d 122. Thus, Anna could not inherit the entire gift even though Carrie had predeceased Katherine.


Definition: "One to whom a debt is owed." Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004)

Example: John Negligent runs over a defenseless old lady in the Santa Cruz mountains on a dark and stormy night. The old lady's family sues sues John for wrongful death and wins. While on appeal, John passes away due to an unforeseen traffic accident. The victim's family is a creditor of John's estate and may assert a creditor's claims during John's probate.


Definition: "A dead person." Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004)

Example: Self-explanatory. I will avoid making a potshot at a recently deceased celebrity.


Definition: "Any writing which declines, refuses, renounces, or disclaims any interest that would otherwise be taken by a beneficiary." Prob C § 265

Example: Homer Thompson is the first named beneficiary of John Negligent's large estate, his uncle. However, Homer has enormous credit card debt and multiple judgments against him. Rather than have his creditors inherit his uncle's estate, Homer disclaims his interest in John's estate so that it transfers to the second named beneficiary. For reference, this is legal. Prob C § 283.


Definition: An individual nominated in a will to be appointed by the probate court to administer the estate of the decedent's death. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: John Negligent nominates in his will that Freddy Freebird to be the executor of his will. 


Definition: A person who is required to act for the benefit of another person, on all matters within the scope of their relationship; one who owes to another the duties of good faith, confidence and candor. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: An executor hires an attorney to handle a decedent's probate. The executor is a fiduciary for the decedent's estate and the attorney is a fiduciary for the executor.


Definition: Any person, including the surviving spouse, who is entitled to take property of the decedent by intestate succession under this code. Prob C § 44. 

Example: Harry is married to Wendy but the couple decides never to have kids. Harry passes away in a tragic rafting accident on the Colorado River in Arizona. At the time of his passing, Harry did not write his will. Wendy is considered Harry's heir. 

An heir is basically a person's next of kin.


Definition: A person who has died without a valid will. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004). 

Example: Irwin decides to write a will but can only locate 1 witness, his neighbor, to sign his type-written will. On the way home from having his will countersigned by his neighbor, Irwin is run over by a pizza delivery guy. Irwin has died intestate because a type-written will requires 2 witnesses. Prob C §6110.


Definition: All his or her lineal descendants of all generations, with the relationship of parent and child at each generation being determined by the definitions of child and parent. Prob C § 50.

Example: Harry and Wendy, a married couple, have two children, Sonny and Denise. Denise then gets married and has a child, Gwynn. Harry then passes away in an unforeseen blender accident. Harry's issue would be considered Sonny, Denise and Gwynn. 


Definition: A devise to a beneficiary that fails because the beneficiary has either predeceased the testator or has failed to live until a certain point in time. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: Thomas devises to Bobby his home in Los Altos, CA free and clear, 650 Rosewood Court. Bobby unexpectedly passes away before Thomas succumbs to mortality. Bobby's inheritance is a nullity because he has failed to survive Thomas, namely the gift has "lapsed." 


Definition: An individual under 18 years of age. Fam C §6500.

Example: Self-explanatory   

No Contest Clause

Definition: A clause in a will or trust that disinherits a beneficiary should they contest a will or trust. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).

Example: Thomas writes in his will that his son, his sole heir, shall only receive $10,000 of Thomas' $1,000,000 estate. The remainder of the estate will go to Thomas' drinking buddy Barney. The will also contains a no contest clause which states that Thomas will forfeit his $10,000 inheritance if he chooses to pursue litigation in hopes of overturning the will for whatever reason.

Pretermitted Child

Definition: A will, made by a parent, that fails to account for a child.  Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).  

Example: Harry writes his will in 2000. In 2002, Harry marries Wendy and they have a child named Doris in 2004. In 2011, Harry passes away after toppling a vending machine after he tried to grab the last Diet Mountain Dew from it. Doris is a pretermitted child because Harry's will does not account for her. In light of this, Doris may be able to claim an intestate share of Harry's estate.

The companion to a pretermitted child case is the pretermitted spouse, in which the husband fails to account for the wife in his will.


Definition: A residuary gift is a transfer of property that remains after all specific and general gifts have been satisfied. Prob C §21117(f).

Example: Thomas pens a will with the following stipulations (1) $15,000 to my Uncle Buck (2) $20,000 to my neighbor Al Bundy (3) my Honda Accord to my friend Larry Appleton and (4) the residual to Pancho Villa. When he dies Thomas' estate has (1) $100,000 in cash (2) $300,000 in Exxon Mobil stock (3) a home in Beverly Hills, CA (4) a Honda Accord and (5) a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. 

Villa, as the residual beneficiary is entitled to $65,000 in cash, all the Exxon Mobil stock, Thomas' house and his watch. 

Rule Against Perpetuities 

Definition: A nonvested property interest is invalid unless one of the following conditions is satisfied: 

Definition: A person who has made a will.Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004).
Example: Pretty sure an explanation is not needed here.


Definition: One who, having legal title to property, holds it in trust for the benefit of another and owes a fiduciary duty to that beneficiary. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004). 

Example: Thomas writes a trust and leaves property to his son Samuel. However, since Samuel is a minor, Thomas entrusts the property to Theo to hold in trust until Samuel becomes an adult.

The list of duties a trustee owes a beneficiary are expansive and there is significant liability involved with this undertaking.

Trustor (or Settlor)

Definition: One who creates a trust. Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (West Group, 2004). 

Example: Every trust has three components, a trustor (or settlor), the person who creates the trust, the trustee, the legal owner of trust property and the beneficiary, the equitable owner of the property.