Probate is the process of getting things stuck in your name over to someone else.
When you own stuff and you're alive, it's easy to give your stuff away. You hand it over. You write a check. You sign an agreement. After you pass away, what happens to the stuff that's stuck in your name? You're not able to write checks any more - obviously.
Judges in our country have nearly unlimited powers - a carryover from our English heritage. A king used to hold court to listen to and solve his country's problems. A king, however, had limited time (and interest), so he delegated his powers to others. Our judges come out of this tradition and, therefore, have powers that rival even kings (thankfully, through a system of checks and balances, they don't often abuse that power).
So when something is stuck in your name, but you're dead, family, friends, or creditors will ask a judge to use their power to take the thing stuck in your name and give it to someone else. This process is called probate.
Other Probate Terms
The judge, of course, wants to be fair and so they'll make sure your creditors are paid and that the remaining stuff is given to the people you wanted it to go to. This is why many people leave a "will," so the judge knows who to give your stuff to.
Just like the kings of old, a judge is busy, and so the judge will delegate a person to take care of the day to day process and will only step in to approve major decisions. This person is called a "personal representative" in Wisconsin or an "executor" in many other states.
Because probate takes care of the things stuck in your name, you can avoid probate by making sure stuff isn't stuck in your name. Having a trust or naming beneficiaries will usually allow your stuff to avoid the probate process.
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