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In Law, what is a Decedent?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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For legal purposes, a decedent is a dead person. While this term can be used outside the law, it is considered overly formal in some circles. In legal matters involving a death, the dead person will be named in legal documents in addition to being referred to as “the decedent” to make the subject of the documents as clear as possible. Law enforcement officers and attorneys are most likely to use this term.

In law enforcement, unusual deaths may trigger an investigation. If a death is clearly suspicious in nature, investigators will want to look into the circumstances around the death to determine if anyone is responsible. This could result in a trial where a party is held accountable for the death. The goal is to provide justice for the decedent and any surviving family as well as prosecuting individuals who commit murder or behave negligently and cause a death. This creates clear consequences for engaging in such activities and acts as a deterrence to others.

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In legal documents, the decedent is usually a topic of interest in the context of a will. If a will is present and appears to be legally valid, an executor will process it on behalf of the decedent, sometimes with the assistance of an attorney. In the event of a contest over the will, litigators must consider the expressed and implied wishes of the decedent when pursuing the matter in court. This is challenging because the subject of the case is no longer available to testify.

Estate taxes, probate fees, and a variety of other costs can come up when a person dies. Dead people are not legally responsible for the costs of processing their estates, as it is rather difficult to hold them accountable in a court of law. Instead, their estate bears these costs directly. In the event someone dies without a will, the government can appoint an executor to handle the estate, address any fees from the proceeds, and distribute the remainder to surviving family members.

The formality of this term may be used as a distancing measure. In court, attorneys may choose to refer to the deceased by name or as “the decedent” for psychological reasons. The formality of the term can create a sense of remove in cases like murder trials, where an attorney may use it to unsettle or subtly discredit a witness by throwing her off with the formality.

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