Definitions of Common Probate Terms

Ancillary: A probate case that takes place in a state other than the home state of the decedent, when there is a domiciliary probate in the home state. Most commonly used when land is owned in more than one state.

Beneficiary: A person who is entitled to receive a distribution of money or other property. For example, the beneficiary of a trust receives money from the trust. The word “beneficiary” is also used to mean someone who inherits under a will, even though the formal legal term for that is “devisee.”

Codicil: An amendment to a will.

Creditors: People or businesses who are owed money. If a person died owing money to anyone, the person who was owed money becomes a creditor of the estate, and can demand to be paid from the assets of the person who died.

Decedent: The person who died.

Devisee: Traditionally, a devisee is someone who is named in a will to inherit real estate. However, in Hawaii, a devisee is someone who is named in a will to inherit any kind of asset, whether real estate or personal property.

Domiciliary: A probate case that takes place in the home state of the person who died.


Elective Share: This is an option for a surviving spouse. If a surviving spouse is not satisfied with the inheritance left by a husband or wife, the surviving spouse can choose instead to take an “elective share.” The amount of that share depends on how long the couple was married. A claim for an elective share must be made within 9 months after death. Rules for the elective share are complicated.

Estate: The assets and debts left by a person who died. If there is a probate, the estate is called the “probate estate.” If the person had a trust, the estate is called the “trust estate.”

Exempt Property: If someone dies while living in Hawaii, the surviving spouse (or surviving children) is entitled to exempt property (household furnishings, appliances, cars, personal effects) in the amount of $10,000. The right to exempt property has priority over all claims except claims for homestead allowance and family allowance.

 Family Allowance: If a person dies in Hawaii, the surviving spouse and minor children whom the decedent was obligated to support and children who were in fact being supported by the decedent are entitled to a family allowance, which is usually $18,000. The family allowance has priority over all claims except for the homestead allowance.

Heir: A person who is entitled to inherit the property of a decedent who dies without a will.

Homestead Allowance: If a person dies in Hawaii, the surviving spouse (or minor or dependent children) is entitled to a homestead allowance of $15,000. The homestead allowance has priority over all claims against the estate.

Intestate: This means dying without a valid will. Property will go to the people (called “heirs”) specified by Hawaii law.

Joint Tenants: A way for two or more people to own an asset together. When one owner dies, the asset goes automatically to the other owner(s) without probate, regardless of what the will says.

Personal Representative: The person appointed by the court in a probate case to handle an estate. This person is often referred to as the “PR” and in some states is called the “executor”. The decedent’s will can name the PR, but the PR generally does not have the authority to act until appointed by the court.

Petition: A written request to the court for an order.

Probate: The formal court process that allows collection of a decedent’s assets, payment of bills and taxes, and distribution of property to the heirs or devisees. In Hawaii, probate occurs in the Circuit Court in the county where the decedent lived or where his/her real estate is located.

Reciprocal Beneficiaries: In Hawaii, two adults who legally cannot marry each other may register with the Department of Health as reciprocal beneficiaries. Under Hawaii probate law, they will generally have the same legal rights as husband and wife.

Recordation: In Hawaii, title to land is recorded in either the Land Court System or the Regular System. Land in either system has to go through probate if it is in the sole name of the decedent. If it is in Regular System, it can be given to the beneficiaries by a simple deed. But if it is in the Land Court System, various court documents must also be recorded.

Tenants by the Entirety: A way for a married couple to own an asset together. Neither can sell his or her half without the consent of the other. If one is sued, a creditor cannot take away the property. If one dies, the property goes to the other without probate.

Tenants in Common: A way for two or more people to own property together. If one dies, that person’s share does not go automatically to the other owner(s), but instead goes according to that person’s will.

Testate: This means dying with a valid will. Property will go to the people (called “devisees”) who are named in the will.

Testator: The person who signs a will. Traditionally a “testator” was a male and a “testatrix” was a female, but in Hawaii “testator” means a person of either sex who signs a will.

Trust: An arrangement in which one person (the “Settlor” or “Grantor”) transfers property to another person (the “Trustee”) to be held for the benefit of others (the “Beneficiaries”). The most common trust today is the self trusteed revocable living trust, where a person transfers property to herself as trustee, for the benefit of herself as beneficiary. Upon the person’s death, the assets held in the name of the trust do not have to go through probate. However, the trust estate will still need to be administered, which in many ways is similar to a probate but does not involve a court.

Trustee: The person who holds legal title to the assets of a trust. The trustee is responsible for managing and investing the assets of the trust and makes distributions to the beneficiaries. The trustee must follow the instructions in the trust document.

Will: A legal document which says who will inherit assets. In Hawaii, a will generally must be signed by two witnesses, although there are a few exceptions to this rule.

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