When people pass away, their assets go through probate — a legal process that distributes the person’s assets after death. The parties to an estate are the people involved in the probate process. 

Although not technically a party to the estate, the deceased person — called the testator or decedent — is essential. When people make wills, they can choose beneficiaries, selecting people who have an interest in their estate. In the case of those who die without having made a will, state law often dictates who inherits the estate and determines the parties involved. 

Parties to an estate include: 

  • Beneficiaries.  Anyone a testator chooses can be a beneficiary. Beneficiaries are people named in a will. Testators — people making wills — can leave assets to specific beneficiaries, such as a sibling, a friend, or charities, leaving them personal items of sentimental or monetary value, or even real estate. A testator may choose to leave the remainder (known as the residuary estate) to another group of beneficiaries, such as their children or their own trust. 
  • Heirs-at-law. State law also provides a framework for who should inherit an estate if a person dies without a will. The distributes or heirs-at-law are the people who have a right to inherit if the decedent died intestate (without a will). 
  • Fiduciaries. The fiduciary is the person tasked with carrying out the estate plan. If the decedent had a will in place, the fiduciary is the executor named in the will. An administrator will handle their affairs if a person dies without a will. Often, the administrator is a close family member, such as a surviving spouse or child. It is not uncommon for this individual to hire an attorney to help them with probate. 
  • Creditors. Creditors are also parties to an estate. When a person dies with outstanding debt, creditors can receive money from the decedent’s estate. 

In specific cases, there might be other parties to an estate: 

  • Trustees. Trustees become involved when a person establishes a testamentary trust — a trust created in a will. 
  • Guardians. A guardian may be a party to the estate when a person leaves behind minor children. Individuals can name guardians for underage children in their wills. 

Contact our office to learn more about the basics of estate administration.