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. Beneficiaries are people named in a will. Testators — people making wills — can leave assets to specific beneficiaries, such as family members and friends. Anyone a testator chooses can be a beneficiary. When making wills, people can leave a beneficiary a portion of the total estate and make specific bequests to individuals, leaving them personal items of sentimental or monetary value.
- 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.
- 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.