First, state laws do vary and my experience is limited to Texas, which is not mainstream on a lot of property issues. The estate pays all legal debts (some debts become uncollectible after the passage of time and need not be paid) before making distributions to beneficiaries. The Will names the executor, who is usually appointed by the probate court. The executor goes about his business, and if he is an independent executor in Texas, unless he is challenged by an heir or someone else, he or she goes to the court at the end of the process, gives an accounting to the judge, and the estate is closed. This is when you have a Will. If there is no Will, the court appoints the executor (the family needs to be united here or the judge may appoint his poker game buddy) and oversees the estate and may ask to approve major transactions. That is why a Will is critical. If there is no Will, your heirs have much less flexibility and there is a good chance your wishes, however expressed, are less likely to be followed. In Texas small estates are often settled without filing the Will with the court. But if the deceased had any of the forms of modern property—real estate, bank and brokerage accounts, IRA/401ks, etc.—-you want to file a Will and get appointed by the court in order to effectively deal with these matters.