When someone dies with a will, the property remaining in their possession goes through probate, a lengthy process where a court ensures that the person's estate pays off any debts he may have had and that the remaining property is distributed in accordance with that person's wishes and the law. In a will, a person typically appoints an executor to oversee management of the estate through the probate process.
Overseeing the estate through the probate process is a complex process, involving a thorough cataloguing of all assets and debts of the person, managing estate taxes, distributing the estate assets to the appropriate beneficiary, and accounting to beneficiaries for the assets of the estate. Because of the complexity and possibility for mismanagement, it's highly advisable for an appointed executor to consult with an attorney experienced in the areas of estate administration.
While probate can be a time-consuming and costly process, there are some ways to mitigate its impact on your estate. Property transferred into a trust during a person's lifetime is not subject to probate. Likewise, property held jointly with someone else may not be subject to probate under some circumstances. Additionally, certain types of property, including some types of life insurance, IRA accounts, or other accounts that include a named living beneficiary may not have to go through the probate process.