(Last Updated On: 1st December 2022)

There is no doubt that legal texts are hard to read and understand for the layman. Not only do they include long and complicated sentences and legalese, they are peppered with Latin terms and expressions, too! This happens across all areas of the law, and the law of wills and succession is no exception.

In this article, I share with you 10 Latin terms and expressions you can find in English (England and Wales) legal texts related to wills and succession. Each section includes

  • a Latin term or expression;
  • its dictionary definition, taken from the Black’s Law Dictionary (Ninth Edition);
  • the specific topic where the term or expression is more likely to be found; and
  • an explanation.

Bear in mind that

  • ‘English’ refers to concepts, language, texts, etc. from England and Wales only, as opposed to other jurisdictions where they may exist or apply.
  • ‘Spanish’ refers to concepts, language, texts, etc. from Spain’s derecho común (subject to the Civil Code) only, and does not include the local laws of specific regions.

1. Animus revocandi

Dictionary definition: the intention to revoke (a will).

Topic: revocation of wills

Explanation: a will can be revoked either

  • by an express or implied revocation by a subsequent will, codicil or other document duly executed as if it were a will; or
  • by destruction of the will.

In both cases, the testator must also have an intention to revoke (animus revocandi), which must be unambiguous. Otherwise, a revocation will not be valid.

Additional info: English wills can also be revoked by the testator’s subsequent marriage or civil partnership.

2. Bona vacantia

Dictionary definition: property not disposed of by a decedent’s will and to which no relative is entitled under intestacy laws.

Topic: intestacy

Explanation: when a person dies intestate (without having made a will), s46 Administration of Estates Act 1925 establishes the order of priority in which relatives of the deceased person are entitled to receive. Where there are no relatives at all, the entire estate will pass to the Crown* and the estate is described as bona vacantia.

*unless the intestate dies in Cornwall or the Duchy of Lancaster.

3. Commorientes

Dictionary definition: 1. persons who die at the same time, often of the same cause, such as spouses who die in an accident. 2. The rule establishing presumptions of survivorship for purposes of succession regarding such persons.

Topics: failure of gifts, intestacy

Explanation: the doctrine of commorientes is a statutory presumption as to survivorship. It is governed by s184 Law Property Act 1925, which states that, when two or more persons die and it is uncertain who died first, for purposes affecting property, the deaths are presumed to have occurred in order of seniority.

This doctrine also applies when a person dies intestate owning a property as joint tenants, allowing the property to pass to the younger spouse by survivorship outside intestacy rules.

4. De bonis non administratis

Dictionary definition: of the goods not administered.

Topic: grants of representation

Explanation: the expression refers to a special type of grant of representation. Where the sole or last surviving personal representative of a deceased’s estate dies before the administration of the estate has been completed, a grant de bonis non administratis must then be obtained by a person entitled to apply for it.

5. Devastavit

Dictionary definition: a fiduciary’s failure to administer an estate or trust promptly and properly, esp. by spending extravagantly or misapplying assets.

Topic: the administration of the estate

Explanation: a devastavit is any breach of duty by a personal representative.

There are three main types:

(1) misappropriation. Example: using estate assets for your personal use.

(2) maladministration. Examples include incurring unjustified expenses, wasting the assets, failure to pay debts promptly, and failure to distribute the estate to those entitled.

(3) failure to safeguard assets (negligence).

Where there is proof of devastavit, personal representatives are personally liable, although they can raise certain defences.

6. Donatio mortis causa

Dictionary definition: a gift made in contemplation of the donor’s imminent death.

Topic: general introduction to wills and succession

Explanation: a donatio mortis causa is a conditional gift someone (the ‘donor’) makes in contemplation of death and which is only completed on that person’s death. For a donatio mortis causa to be valid, it must meet three requirements:

(1) The donor must be expecting to die in the near future from a particular reason he or she thinks it is approaching.

(2) The gift is conditional on the donor’s death. If the donor recovers from the specific threat of death he or she is expecting, the gift will be revoked.

(3) The actual gift or its means of control must be physically handed over. This is what is called ‘parting with dominion’.

7. Falsa demonstratio

Dictionary definition: a false designation; an erroneous description of a person or thing in a legal instrument.

Topic: the construction of wills

Explanation: falsa demonstratio is a subsidiary principle of construction of wills. According to this principle, a false description does not invalidate an instrument if the subject is described with enough certainty. This means that, if the object of a gift is described with sufficient certainty, any additional words that are inaccurate can be ignored; the important thing is that the testator’s intention can be seen, even though the description is wrong.

8. Locus standi

Dictionary definition: the right to bring an action or to be heard in a given forum.

Topic: family provision

Explanation: family members and dependants may be able to make a claim for provision, if the testator (or the intestacy rules) failed to make reasonable financial provision for them. In order to make a claim, certain requirements must be met, one of them being having locus standi. In family provision, having locus standi means having the right to make a claim by falling into one of the six categories of applicants allowed by s1(1) Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

9. Plene administravit praeter

Dictionary definition: a defensive plea in which an executor or administrator asserts that no assets remain in the estate, except a stated few that are insufficient to satisfy the plaintiff’s demand.

Topic: the liability of the personal representatives

Explanation: as mentioned above, a personal representative is personally liable if devastavit is proved, although certain defences can be raised. One of those defences is to plead plene administravit praeter, that is, that the personal representative has duly administered all assets, except for assets of a stated value which they still hold. If a creditor makes a claim, the personal representative can make this plea and the creditor claim’s can only be satisfied with the assets the personal representative admits holding or with future assets.

10. Per stirpes

Dictionary definition: proportionately divided between beneficiaries according to their deceased ancestor’s share.

Topic: intestacy

Explanation: if a deceased person has several children who are entitled under intestacy, the property that is available for distribution is divided in equal shares (per stirpes).

Irene Corchado Resmella, a Spanish translator based in Edinburgh. English-Spanish sworn translator appointed by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chartered Linguist and member of the CIOL. As a legal translator, I focus on Private Client law, specialising in Wills and Succession across three jurisdictions (England & Wales, Spain, and Scotland). Affiliate member of STEP. ICR Translations is registered with the ICO and has professional indemnity insurance.

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