People often wonder about probate court. probate court is simply a branch of the court system. You may have heard of Divorce Court, Bankruptcy Court, Criminal Court, Juvenile Court, Etc. These are all "branches" of the court system, and probate court is simply one of those branches.
The probate court not only handles post death matters dealing with the distribution of assets, but probate court also handles post death disputes between families, beneficiaries, etc. People could be fighting about something as simple as who was supposed to get Grandma's vase! Sometimes, people are arguing about more important matters - like why they were written out of the estate plan or why they got a lesser percentage than they thought they should get.
The probate court judge essentially serves as a referee, making decisions about many post-death matters. Depending on the size of your estate, and whether or not you have any estate planning documents (such as a living trust), the probate court may have to get involved in your affairs. After all, your assets may not "magically" transfer to your beneficiaries.
In some cases, some assets will simply pass by way of a designated "beneficiary." Typical examples of such assets include life insurance policies and retirement accounts. The only thing required on such assets is an appropriate beneficiary designation. This is accomplished by designating one or more beneficiaries on a form that is provided to you by the retirement account company or the life insurance company. Usually there will be a "primary" beneficiary and then a "secondary" or "contingent" beneficiary. They don't care what your will or living trust says. All they care about is who is on the beneficiary form.
Speaking of beneficiaries, you can also name beneficiaries on certain bank accounts. If all your assets simply pass by beneficiary designations, the probate court doesn't have to get involved at all. While beneficiary designations are convenient, they don't go as far as a living trust might go and certainly don't provide as much guidance and protection for your beneficiaries. However, in some cases, naming a beneficiary is the most efficient path to take.
Avoiding Probate Court may involve a combination of tools - such as a living trust and appropriate beneficiary designations. All you have to do is examine each asset that you have and make sure that it passes to your heirs one way or the other - there is no perfect solution - that's why it's called an "estate plan" and NOT an "estate fool-proof plan."
In many cases, a living trust would be a better solution. In other cases, naming beneficiaries is best. Finally, in many cases, a simple will might be all your need. What the best method/s might be in your particular situation is part of the planning process. It is usually a combination of methods that will help achieve the best result. Sit down with an estate planning attorney and focus on which methods would be best in your situation. Avoiding probate is great, but it's better if you really know what you are doing and the pros/cons of each approach.