Probate is a fancy term for the legal process that occurs after a person dies. The probate court system must first validate that the will is authentic, and then proceed to distribute the estate among the heirs. When a person leaves no will, the probate court must decide, according to the laws of the state, who gets what.
Probate is an expensive process and can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how complicated the estate is. If you want to spare your heirs the hassle of probate, there are a few ways to avoid the process, such as a revocable living trust.