What Is a Decedent?

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Definition

Decedent is the legal word used to refer to a deceased individual. Estate attorneys, tax professionals, and court officials use “decedent” throughout the estate distribution process.

Definition and Example of a Decedent

“Decedent” is a word used in legal documents to refer to a person who has died. Their personal property is called their estate. “Decedent” is used in documents and court proceedings related to the individual’s estate, debt, and any trusts left in place for their beneficiaries.

Knowing how the word is used in legal documents and court proceedings can help you better understand the estate distribution process.

  • Alternate name: Deceased

When someone dies, there are many financial issues that must be sorted out in relation to their estate. Ideally, the decedent will have named an executor prior to their death, who is responsible for filing taxes, paying off outstanding debts, and distributing any remaining assets.

For example, say your spouse died. In legal documents, such as regarding estate matters, your spouse would be called the decedent, while you would be referred to as the surviving spouse. 

How a Decedent Works

Legal professionals use the specialized word “decedent” in connection with several financial and legal actions that must be executed after a person passes away.

Note

Depending on the decedent’s financial situation, there are typically three types of transactions that may need to occur following the individual’s death: filing taxes, paying debt, and distributing assets.

Filing Federal Taxes

A tax return must be filed on behalf of a decedent to report their income, credits, and deductions. The deadline for filing their taxes is the tax deadline in the year following the decedent’s death.

So if an individual died in 2022, their tax returns would be due April 15, 2023. Any outstanding tax returns for other years must also be filed for the decedent. A person’s tax obligations aren’t nullified simply because they passed away.

Once the tax return is filed, the person filing may have to make a payment from the estate if there is an outstanding tax due, or they may receive a refund if applicable. Tax refunds are considered part of the decedent’s estate.

Paying Off Debt

Before any assets are distributed to the decedent’s heirs, their outstanding debts must be paid off first, assuming there is no co-signer or joint account owner. Both cash and personal property may be liquidated to pay off creditors.

Note

The executor is in charge of handling the debt payments. Relatives of the decedent may receive calls from debt collectors, but they’re not personally responsible for the debt as long as they didn’t open the account with the decedent.

Distributing Estate Assets

When a decedent has a will, the executor is tasked with distributing those assets to the beneficiaries. However, the process must be overseen by a probate court, which can slow down the distribution of the assets and add legal fees that detract from the value of the estate.

If the decedent did not create a will, then state law determines who inherits the estate. In most states, it is a spouse, children, or other close relative.

Note

Check your state laws for the most accurate details of how a decedent’s estate is handled in various situations, such as having a will versus not having a will in place.

Probate can be avoided in a couple of different ways. The first way is if the decedent created a living trust before their death. However, any type of bank account or life insurance policy that requires a beneficiary to be named can be honored without a will. So if the decedent named beneficiaries on their financial accounts, those heirs could receive their inheritance without going through probate.

Decedent vs. Deceased

Both “decedent” and “deceased” are used to refer to someone who has passed away. “Decedent” is typically used in legal terms. “Deceased” is often used when talking about the victim of a homicide. Essentially, both words have the same meanings but are used in different situations.

Key Takeaways

  • A decedent is someone who has passed away.
  • The word “decedent” is generally used in legal proceedings, particularly in handling the decedent’s estate.
  • A decedent typically must have three financial areas addressed: taxes, debts, and assets.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. “Decedent.”

  2. California Courts. “Wills, Estates, and Probate.”

  3. IRS. “Topic No. 365 Decedents.”

  4. IRS. “Deceased Persons — Filing the Final Returns of a Deceased Taxpayer.”

  5. Virginia Tax. “Filing for Deceased Individuals.”

  6. American Bar Association. “Probate Process."

  7. City of Portland Police Bureau. "Dead Body Procedure."

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