What Is a Decedent? Definition and Legal Rights

Decedent is a legal term for a person who has died. Decedents often have legal and financial obligations.
Dalia Ramirez
By Dalia Ramirez 
Edited by Tina Orem

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Decedent is a term for a person who has died. It is used in legal settings such as tax and estate planning. It often refers to a deceased person whose estate is being settled during probate

Cornell Law School. Decedent. Accessed Sep 27, 2023.

A decedent can control where their assets go after they die via a will or trust. Decedents have legal and financial obligations, including distributing their assets and paying outstanding taxes or debts, which they carry out through representatives such as an executor, administrator or trustee.

If the decedent didn’t create a will — called “dying intestate” — a state probate court may distribute their assets according to state laws.

Decedents in estate planning

Decedents can exert influence and exercise their rights after death. They do this via trusts, wills and the probate process.

A decedent’s estate may include:

  • Property, including real estate.

  • Stocks and bonds.

  • Personal property, including vehicles, jewelry and family heirlooms.

  • Financial accounts, though some accounts, such as life insurance, may transfer directly to a beneficiary without going through probate.

Legal responsibilities of a decedent

Decedents have legal responsibilities that a representative, usually the executor of their will or the trustee of their trust, must carry out during the probate process

American Bar Association. The Probate Process. Accessed Sep 27, 2023.
. These may include:

  • Paying any outstanding debts out of the estate before assets can transfer to beneficiaries.

  • Filing a will with their state probate court and undergoing the probate process.

  • Notifying important institutions of the death, including banks, creditors and government agencies such as the IRS and the Social Security Administration.

  • Filing a final tax return with the IRS.

  • Paying estate taxes if the estate’s size exceeds the federal or state estate tax limit.

  • Distributing assets to beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will or trust. 

» Estate planning? Here’s a 7-step guide

Tax implications for a decedent

A decedent may owe federal or state estate taxes, depending on the value of their assets and the state they lived in. The federal estate tax ranges from rates of 18% to 40% and generally only applies to assets over $12.92 million in 2023 or $13.61 million in 2024.

The decedent’s representative ensures that any estate taxes are paid from the estate’s accounts before assets can transfer to beneficiaries. They’ll also file the decedent’s final tax return to report any final earned income.

Decedent trusts

A decedent trust is the “part A” of an AB trust (also called a bypass trust or credit shelter trust). Married couples create this type of trust to reduce their estate taxes or to ensure that children from previous relationships inherit certain assets.

When the first spouse (the decedent) dies, their estate transfers into a trust that pays income to the surviving spouse. When the surviving spouse dies, the remaining assets “bypass” the surviving spouse’s estate and transfer to previously designated beneficiaries.

Decedent vs. deceased

The main difference between a decedent and a deceased person is whether the term has legal connotations. Both terms refer to a person who has died, but the word “decedent” is often used in legal documents and scenarios related to their estate

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Deceased. Accessed Sep 27, 2023.

A decedent has certain legal rights and responsibilities after death; “deceased” doesn’t carry these connotations. People often use the term “decedent” in situations where someone else has to represent a deceased person legally, such as in court.

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