When the estate of a deceased person is processed after death, this is referred to as probate. It means to resolve all claims against the estate and to distribute property in a valid will. Typically, the validity of a will in a contested will situation is decided by a surrogate court. They also interpret the will’s instructions, choose an executor to represent the estate, and deal with heirs and/or others who feel they have a claim on the estate.
In U.S. jurisdictions where a married couple’s property is considered to be a tenancy by the entireties, if one of the partners dies without a will, that part of their estate goes directly to the spouse, without probate. However, if the estate does not automatically go to the surviving spouse, and is not held in a trust, the estate will need to be put into probate, even if the deceased did have a valid will.
If someone dies without a will, referred to as dying intestate, the estate gets dispersed according to the laws of the state where the deceased lived, or they are held by the court. Those with a will typically have an executor or administrator to carry out their instructions. If no executor is named, a probate court may appoint one.