Probate is the process of proving a last will and testament, which means verifying that the will is legal and the deceased person's intentions are carried out. Probate also occurs when there is no will and a probate court must decide how to distribute the assets of the deceased's estate to his or her loved ones. For small estates, probate may only take a matter of weeks or months. But the probate process for larger estates can take years. Anyone with a valid claim to any assets in the estate may contest the will or file a petition with probate court, which could drag the process out even longer.
Contrary to popular belief, wills don't necessarily help you avoid probate. But the terms of the will guide probate, and they can make the process easier for everyone involved.
Many assets don't go through probate. Bank accounts, retirement funds, and life insurance policies with a payable-on-death beneficiary are transferred to the beneficiary upon the owner's death. Assets in a trust are governed separately from probate according to the terms of the trust.