Probate is the legal process for administering the affairs (the “estate”) of a deceased person (a “decedent”).
The basic legal theory behind probate law is relatively simple: Once someone has died, there’s no one around to sign checks, close accounts, or transfer titles. So the court authorizes someone (called the “personal representative” or “executor”) to do those things on behalf of the decedent.
Imagine the following practical example: Bob dies, leaving behind 3 children and $90,000 in his checking account. The kids (his legal heirs) go to the bank and ask for the money. Naturally, the bank will say “sorry, you’re not authorized to make withdrawals on this account.” What the children need to do is open probate, and get someone appointed as personal representative. The court will then issue “letters testamentary” to that representative, basically authorizing him or her to do anything that the decedent was allowed to do. She can then show those letters to the bank, and the bank will let her access the account.
Usually, probate is fairly quick process, so long as no one is fighting over the property or contesting a will. There is some paperwork involved, however, so many people opt to pay an attorney to handle it for them. A typical uncontested probate will run in the neighborhood of $1000.