After an individual passes away, it may be necessary to go through probate to settle that person's estate. However, it may be possible in some cases to bypass the court process, which is known as probate. The purpose of probate is to determine if a will is valid, to take care of any final financial issues and to transfer property to heirs.
An individual may have appointed an executor to handle the execution of the estate, or the court may appoint one. This person is responsible for inventorying assets, paying debts and distributing what is left to beneficiaries according to the terms of the will. Most probate cases can take anywhere from nine months to as long as a year and a half to complete. Therefore, it may be beneficial to be able to use the simplified process.
In the event that property was owned in joint tenancy or was jointly owned with right of survivorship, the property will go to the joint owner. This may be also be true for bank accounts or other assets that had multiple owners. Life insurance policies or retirement accounts in the name of the deceased may have named beneficiaries associated with them. In this scenario, the accounts pass to the beneficiary, assuming that this person can verify that he or she has the legal right to claim those assets. All of these transfers take place outside of probate.
Advance estate planning may enable an estate to be settled privately without a probate hearing. Assets placed in a trust or assets with named beneficiaries may be exempt from certain legal scrutiny. This may enable the estate to settle its affairs quickly and distribute what is left after expenses have been paid. An estate administration attorney may be helpful in coordinating such a plan.
Source: California Courts, "Wills, Estates, and Probate", September 30, 2014