What is a Decedent?

A decedent is a deceased person. It is used in the context of post-death logistics. The first time many people hear it used is by funeral home staff and while managing a decedent’s estate.

In a legal sense, a decedent exists on paper even though they are no longer alive. This is due to the legal matters that must be resolved following a person’s death.

A decedent is central to any discussion of their estate. The term decedent is commonly used in all forms of estate planning documents, including wills, trusts, payable-on-death (POD) accounts, etc. The same is true during probate cases where there is no estate plan. The court typically refers to the person who died as the decedent.

The term decedent is also used in relation to taxpayers. An individual who dies may leave tax obligations, and these obligations could impact their heirs. It is important for a survivor to remember that a person’s income tax liability follows them after their death. The federal government requires payment of income taxes on the decedent’s earnings prior to their death

Example of a Decedent in the Probate Process

When a person dies, their survivor must determine if they had a will. Whether a will was in place or not, it is necessary to initiate a probate case if the decedent held any assets when they died, and they meet the probate limit according to the state where they primarily resided.

If there is a will, the court must determine if it is valid. If the will is legitimate, the court must work to ensure the decedent’s instructions are adhered to according to the terms of the document. Read our article about probate.

What is a Decedent in an Estate Plan?

The decedent is central to their estate plan and includes instructions on the administration and execution of the plan. If the decedent had an existing and legal estate plan, their survivors begin the process of resolving the decedent’s estate by assessing their assets, debts, taxes, and inheritance requests as outlined in the estate plan. A will and/or an estate plan spells out how that person intended their property to be distributed upon their death. It’s important to remember that with an estate plan, the decedent had the opportunity to make many of these decisions during the course of their lifetime. For example, their will could dictate who should administer their estate and how their property is to be distributed. If they used a revocable trust or other estate planning tool, the decedent’s estate might avoid the probate process entirely.

Not every decedent has an estate plan. It is not uncommon for individuals to die without a will, trust, or other documents in place. This is known as dying intestate. In these cases, the decedent has no say in how their assets are distributed upon their death. However, they are still central to the process.

When a person dies without a will, state law determines and dictates how to distribute their assets. The state does this through a process known as intestate succession. Intestate succession differs by state. However, the right to inherit usually falls to a surviving spouse first, followed by any children.


Understanding estate terminology is important. The word decedent is only one of the important terms used in post-death logistics. The laws related to estates and probate use archaic language that can be difficult to understand, but the failure to understand these terms could result in serious legal challenges, not to mention countless hours of confusion and frustration for the survivor.

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