Trying to avoid probate? If your estate is relatively small, you may not have to worry about probate at all. (To learn about probate and its downsides, see Nolo's article Why Avoid Probate?)
Almost every state now offers shortcuts through probate -- or a way around it completely -- for "small estates." Each state defines that term differently. Because of the way the laws are written, however, many large estates, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, are eligible for special transfer procedures that speed property to inheritors.
There are two basic kinds of probate shortcuts for small estates:
If the total value of all the assets you leave behind is less than a certain amount, the people who inherit your personal property -- that's anything except real estate -- may be able to skip probate entirely. The exact amount depends on state law, and varies hugely.
If the estate qualifies, an inheritor can prepare a short document stating that he or she is entitled to a certain item of property under a will or state law. This paper, signed under oath, is called an affidavit. When the person or institution holding the property -- for example, a bank where the deceased person had an account -- receives the affidavit and a copy of the death certificate, it releases the money or other property.
Another option for small estates (again, as defined by state law) is a quicker, simpler version of probate. The probate court is still involved, but it exerts far less control over the settling of the estate. In many states, these procedures are straightforward enough to handle without a lawyer, so they save money as well as time.
To determine if your state has a probate shortcut and what size estate will qualify for it, see Nolo's articles Probate Shortcuts in Your State.
If you find your estate is too large to be eligible for a probate shortcut, see Nolo's article How to Avoid Probate for some other ways you can skip probate.
If you find you don't need to do any probate avoidance since your estate will qualify for a probate shortcut, you will probably still need a will. To learn the basics about wills and to get simple-to-use software to make your own will, see Quicken WillMaker & Trust (Nolo).