While some in the world of law treat probate as a kind of a dirty word that inevitably spells years of time, money and emotional heartache, the term actually refers to the process of distributing a person's property after he or she dies.
For a lot of historical and other reasons, this process is typically overseen by the court, at least to some degree. It does take some time to settle affairs after someone dies in a lot of respects, and probate is no exception to this rule.
However, the probate process is not necessarily one laden with conflict; that depends on the particular circumstances of one's estate, as well as the personalities and convictions of those invovled.
In California, the process will begin when someone, usually a loved one or the personal representative nominated in the person's will, requests that the court open a probate case and formally appoint the personal representative.
With the court's authority and mandate, the personal representative will then set about collecting the property of the deceased person that belongs in the estate, paying off debts and other bills, and then distributing the rest according to California law.
If the deceased person left a will, that will is admitted in to court as part of the probate case. The personal representative is required to distribute property in the estate according to the will. Upon receiving a formal challenge, the court will make a decision as to whether a will is valid.
Once the personal representative has accomplished his or her duties, he or she submits a final accounting and report to the court, and the matter is concluded.
Although it need not be overly stressful, the process can be complicated, particularly for a family who has lost a loved one. Getting the help of an experienced probate attorney is generally a good idea.