After you die, your “estate” needs to be taken care of. Your estate is the property you own and the debts you owe. If your estate is worth more than $75,000 or if you own a home or other real estate a probate proceeding is necessary. It is necessary even if you have a will. Retirement money or other assets that you listed a beneficiary for do not count toward the $75,000 limit. A beneficiary is someone you name who gets your assets or property when you die. Real estate means buildings and land. If the real estate is in your name only with no beneficiaries named in the public property records, a probate is necessary.
A probate court appoints a “Personal Representative” to take care of your estate. You can name someone in your will to be Personal Representative, but the court still has to approve it. The Personal Representative is sometimes called the Executor.
The Personal Representative makes a list of all property in the estate and any debts. The Personal Representative pays your debts, and distributes everything left over to your heirs.
If you have a will, it should say how you want your property to be distributed. If you do not have a will, this is called “intestacy” and state law has rules about who gets your property. Even without a will, your property goes to family unless you have no living next of kin. In that situation it would “go to the state.” See our fact sheet, Questions About Wills.
Probate court is also used when there is an argument about your will or a judge’s order is needed to distribute your property.