The answer to that is anything you own either in your name alone, with someone else in survivorship, or in your name but with a designated beneficiary is all part of your estate. That bank account in only your name, your house that is owned with your spouse or a life insurance policy or retirement account that you own but that will pass to a designated beneficiary are all your assets for estate planning purposes and eventually probate. That is the easy part to understand.
More confusing is what goes through probate and how. The only assets that pass through probate are those assets in your name alone. Any assets other than those that are solely owned must be reported for tax purposes—they go directly to 1) the survivor if owned in survivorship, such as the house mentioned above, or 2) the designated beneficiary like your life insurances or IRA’s. In an estate plan, assets in your name alone get distributed under your will. For example, an estate where the deceased had $2.8 million in assets but only $20,000 as solely owned property, only the $20,000 goes through probate to be distributed through the will. The remainder had designated beneficiaries or were owned in survivorship and those assets are reported for tax purposes only.
Now is the time to compile an inventory of all assets in your name alone, as well as those assets that will go directly to a beneficiary or survivor. Then with that inventory on hand, you can make decisions regarding to whom you want to leave those assets to and how they will be handled in probate. All this needs to be taken into account when creating your estate plan and a well developed estate plan will make the probate process easier to navigate.