At your death, any asset owned in your individual name and that does not pass either by (1) joint ownership with rights of survivorship, (2) by beneficiary designation or (3) by a revocable trust becomes owned by your “estate.” Your estate is an intangible legal entity, like a partnership or a corporation, which becomes the owner of all of your remaining assets and liabilities. The legal transfer of these assets in your estate would involve the supervision of the state court system—a process generally called “probate.” Those assets that become part of your estate are generally called “probate assets” because of the need to transfer these assets through the state court system. All assets that are transferred outside of probate are generally called “non-probate” assets. Generally, clients prefer to avoid probate when possible by owning their assets in a Revocable Trust.
“Probate” is merely the branch of the state court system that oversees the legal transfer of certain types of assets you owned at the time of your death. If you die with these types of “probate” assets, a court would require family members to (1) submit your Will to the court to confirm that your Will was properly signed, (2) provide “public notice” of your death through the relevant legal newspaper, (3) allow your creditors a certain amount of time to make claims for unpaid debts or expenses, (4) take steps to make sure that the directions given under your Will are carried out.