Probate is the court-supervised process through which your assets are distributed to your beneficiaries and loved ones. The probate process applies to estates both with and without wills, and it can be smooth and orderly or contentious depending on whether or not family members are fighting over assets you have not specified beneficiaries for.
There are some ways to avoid probate, a process that can be expensive and time consuming, often taking months or years. Assets held in revocable living trusts are not considered to be a part of your estate and are therefore not subject to the probate process. Bank and retirement accounts can also be specified as payable-on-death, again bypassing probate.
Your goal when working on your estate plan should be maximizing the benefit and minimizing the expenses and hassle for your family. In some cases, using the tools at hand to avoid probate is the best option. However, in others, your assets may be subject to estate taxes that are more costly than the probate process would be. Working with a lawyer on your estate plan can help you choose the best options for your situation.