Having a working knowledge of the terms used in estate planning is the first step in working successfully with an estate planning attorney. Here are some of the big ones.
Principal—the individual on whose behalf documents are prepared, and
Fiduciary—the person who signs some of these documents and who is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the principal and the estate.
In estate planning and in business, the fiduciary is the person or business who must act responsibly and in good faith towards the person and their property. You’ll see this term in almost every estate planning or financial document.
Within a last will and testament, there are more: beneficiary, conservator, executor, grantor, guardian, testator, and trustee are some of the more commonly used terms for the roles people take.
The testator is the principal, the person who signs the will and on whose behalf the will was drafted.
Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate after death. Contingent beneficiaries are “back-up” beneficiaries, in case the beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance. In most wills, the beneficiaries are listed “or to descendants, per stirpes.” This means if the beneficiary dies before the testator, the beneficiary’s children receive the original beneficiary’s share.
In most cases, specific distributions are made first, where a specific asset or amount of money goes to a specific person. This includes charitable donations. After all specific distributions are made, the rest of the estate, referred to as the “residuary estate,” is distributed. This includes everything else in the probate estate.
The administrator or executor is the fiduciary charged with gathering assets, paying bills and making the distribution to beneficiaries. The executor is the term used when there is a will. If there is no will, the person in the role is referred to as the administrator and may be appointed by the court.
If a beneficiary is unable to take the inheritance because they are a minor or incapacitated, the court will appoint a conservator to act as fiduciary on behalf of the beneficiary.
A guardian is the person who takes care of the beneficiary, or minor children, and is named in the will. If there is no guardian named in the will, or if there is no will, a court will appoint a person to be the guardian. Judges do not always select family members to serve as guardians, so there should always be a secondary guardian, in case the first cannot serve. If the first guardian does not wish to serve or is unable to, naming a secondary guardian is better than a child being sent to foster care.
Finally, the trustee is the person in charge of a trust. The person who creates the trust is the grantor or settlor. It’s important to note the executor has no control or input over the trust. Only the trustee or successor trustee may make distributions and they are the trust’s fiduciary.
Getting comfortable with the terms of estate planning will make the process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.