Like many areas of law, the language of wills can be complex and confusing. Familiar terms may have different, narrower, or more specific meanings. Other terms may be new altogether. The most common terms that people have difficulty understanding are:


The term testator refers to a person who has made a valid will or who had died leaving a valid will. Other terms for this person include:

  • Decedent
  • Devisor
  • Grantor


A beneficiary is someone who has been designated to receive some benefit as the result of a legal instrument or arrangement. In wills this person may also be called a devisee.


A bequest is a specific gift granted by a will, such as a gift of money or a personal item. This may also be called a devise.


During probate, an executor is appointed to oversee the winding up of the decedent’s affairs, including:

  • Collecting and protecting property
  • Processing claims of creditors and collectors
  • Distributing the property in accordance with the will

The executor is typically named in the will. If no executor is named, or the named executor is unavailable, the probate court will name an administrator (usually a spouse, child, or other living relative).


A fiduciary is a person who is under a legal requirement to act for the benefit of another and owes that person certain duties:

  • Good faith
  • Trust
  • Confidence
  • Candor

In will, the term fiduciary refers to the executor of the decedent’s estate, who owes these duties to both the estate and the beneficiaries of the will.


Probate is the formal legal process for establishing a document as a valid will and appointing an executor to carry out its terms. Probate performs three key functions:

  • Transfers title of property to the new owners
  • Pays off the decedent’s creditors
  • Distributes the remaining property to the rightful beneficiaries

Do I Need a Lawyer to Understand Common Will Terms?

Regardless of whether you think you understand the terms of a will or not, it is a good idea to consult an estate lawyer. An experienced estate planning lawyer will be able to help sort out your rights and any property you may be entitled to.