Almost every person leaves behind some assets that don't need to go through probate. So even if you do conduct a probate court proceeding for the estate, not everything will have to be included. That's good news, because property that doesn't have to go through probate can be transferred to the people who inherit it much more quickly.
Basically, probate is necessary only for property that was:
This property is commonly called the probate estate. If there are assets that require probate court proceedings, it's the responsibility of the executor named in the will to open a case in probate court and shepherd it to its conclusion. If there's no will, or the will doesn't name an executor, the probate court will appoint someone to serve. Either way, the person in charge can hire a lawyer to help with the court proceeding, and pay the lawyer's fee from money in the estate.
Typically, many of the assets in an estate don't need to go through probate. If the deceased person was married and owned most everything jointly, or did some planning to avoid probate, a probate court proceeding may not be necessary.
Here are kinds of assets that don't need to go through probate:
In addition, most states offer simplified probate proceedings for estates of small value. The simpler process is commonly called "summary probate." The executor can use the simpler process if the total property that is subject to probate is under a certain amount, which varies greatly from state to state. In some states, the limit is just a few thousand dollars; in others, it's $200,000.
Because you count only the property that must go through probate—and exclude property that was jointly owned or held in trust, for example—some very large estates can take advantage of the "small estate" procedures. For example, say an estate consists of a $400,000 house that's jointly owned, a $200,000 bank account for which a payable-on-death beneficiary has been named, a $100,000 IRA, and a solely owned car worth $10,000. The estate has a value of more than $700,000, but the only probate asset is the car—and its value qualifies it for the small estate procedure in almost every state.