When someone passes away without a will or only has a simple will, all of his or her assets must be distributed through a court procedure called probate.  The only exception is if the individual had less than $100,000 in probate assets and did not own any real estate.

If there is a will, it must be properly filed with the probate court.  The proper heirs must then be identified and an executor or an administrator (the individual responsible for gathering assets, verifying inventory, paying debts and making distributions) is appointed by the probate court.

After the executor or administrator is appointed, all heirs and creditors of the estate must be notified.  When the statutory claims period has elapsed and all administrative as well as professional fees have been paid, the beneficiaries of the estate may receive their distributions.

Problems with Probate
Unfortunately, when assets are left to beneficiaries through a simple will or without a will, the assets of the deceased individual are accessible to the public.  Anyone can find out what assets a person had when he or she died and can discover who has inherited it. Also, when someone dies without a will or his or her will does not have an explicit waiver provision, the individual who is appointed to distribute the estate must pay to have a bond posted with the probate court.  Probate is also more time consuming and expensive than estate or trust administration.

Avoiding Probate
Some of the expenses and formalities involved with probate court can be minimized through the use of trusts.  A trust will also keep information private. A small estate affidavit may be used to avoid probate for an estate that has less than $100,000 in probate assets and does not include real estate.