When an individual dies owning property in his or her name, that property generally must go through probate. The probate system is designed to ensure the validity of a will, to give notice to all possible claimants of property and to resolve ownership disputes and rights.
Probate courts also distribute property in the absence of a will according to state statute. Some property does not require probate to change hands: joint tenancy property, contractual arrangements such as insurance policies and retirement accounts generally go directly to survivors or beneficiaries. Also, probate is not required for assets held in trust.
When property does go through probate, the court first establishes whether the deceased left a valid will. If so, the probate process guides the division of property in accordance with the will’s provisions. If the will is not valid, the court applies state laws to divide up the estate. The probate court signs off on the final accounting of the distribution, thereby finalizing the transfers of ownership.