Lots of us have heard the term "probate" but have a shaky understanding of just what it means. So here is the quick version: Probate is the court-supervised process of gathering a deceased person's assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing what's left to the people who inherit it.

Literally, the word "probate" comes from the Latin for "to prove," because a central part of many probate proceedings used to be proving that the will was valid. But a probate proceeding can occur whether or not there's a will. If there's no will, the probate process will include an extra step: determining who a deceased person's heirs are, using state laws.

If you're the executor or personal administrator of an estate, also check out our articles on Settling an Estate.

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