No, you don’t quite have it. Probate and federal estate taxes are separate issues.
Probate is governed by state law and is usually required for estates greater than some $ amount ($10K in my state) and for estates where there is no will. For estates where there is a will and all the heirs are known, there may be an administrative probate to “ratify” the will.
The deceased’s estate will pay probate court costs and attorney fees. In my state, the probate court cost can not exceed $3K, so avoiding probate is not such a hot issue as it might be where the cost of the probate is based upon a percentage of the estate.
One way to avoid probate is to have property titled in joint name with right of survivorship. When one person dies, his/her interest automatically passes to the surviving owner with no intervention required by the probate court.
For assets that are separately owned, probate can be bypassed if those assets are held in a trust. The language of the trust dictates how the assets are to be distributed when the grantor dies. A trust might also have a finite life that outlives the grantor. Provisions of the trust might grant a life estate with a remainder interest distributed to beneficiaries when the life estate is terminated.
A taxable estate (with regard to federal estate taxes) includes everything one owns, to include assets held in a revocable trust. Remember that a revocable trust can be revoked at any time by the grantor, while the grantor is still alive. So, since the grantor has control of the assets held in trust, those assets are included in the grantor’s estate for federal estate tax purposes.
The grantor’s estate will be assessed a federal estate tax on any amount that exceeds the federal unified credit. This year the unified credit is $1.5 million. A married couple is granted a marital credit to pass an estate to the surviving spouse tax free, regardless of the size of the estate.
If you inherit, there is no inheritance tax, nor do you have to pay probate costs. The cost of probate, if needed, is usually paid by the deceased individual’s estate. Federal estate taxes, as well, are paid by the estate before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.