Probate is a Court-supervised proceeding, in which the assets belonging to someone who has passed from this life are set over to the persons who are entitled to receive them. During the course of formal probate proceedings, the assets are identified and appraised, creditors are notified, any tax issues are identified, and the Court ultimately enters an Order stating which creditors will be paid, and who will receive a distribution of the remaining assets.
The need for a probate is possible whether or not you have a will. Some people are concerned that having a Will triggers the need for probate. Others think that not having a Will results in the need for probate. The fact is that neither of those is how it works. The manner in which you have your assets titled and the size of your estate are the criteria that typically determine whether or not a formal probate is going to be needed.
Through proper estate planning, probate can very often be avoided or minimized. However, the time for that sort of planning is before you pass away. Not having proper planning in place when you pass away results in additional hardship for your loved ones, who, in addition to grieving over your loss, must also sort through your affairs.