What Is Probate?
The definition of Probate is: "the official proving of a will" and/or "establish the validity of a will".
A more general definition of probate is: The process of transferring the ownership of assets, paying off debts, and finalizing the legal affairs of deceased individual.
Who handles the probate?
The probate court (registry of wills) is the legal authority that handles the affairs of the deceased. As many people die without a will, the probate court will also encompass those cases. Dying without a will is called Intestate, and state law will dictate how the assets (after debts and taxes) are distributed.
The probate process generally entails the following:
1) Petition the court to become the legal representative of the estate
2) Notify heirs and debtors
3) Change legal ownership of assets from the deceased individual to the "Estate of"
4) Pay Funeral Expenses, Taxes, Debts, and then transfer assets to heirs.
5) Tell the court what you have done, and close the estate.
Suggested further readings
NOLO: Probate FAQ