These are the seven key questions to ask a probate lawyer to evaluate how they could help and whether they're the right lawyer for you.
Probate law is the court process for the distribution of a person's estate after they have passed away. A probate attorney works with the executor, as well as the beneficiaries, throughout the process.
It is important to note that probate can occur with or without a will, and the process unfolds slightly differently in either scenario. (The main difference is whether the deceased's estate is distributed according to the terms of the last will and testament or according to intestacy laws).
Likewise, a probate lawyer can assist in either circumstance with their role changing slightly depending on whether or not there is a will.
If you are considering hiring a lawyer, here are the key questions to ask a probate attorney to help you decide whether the lawyer you speak with is a good fit for you and what you can expect if you hire them.
We've put together this checklist, and go into greater detail below:
You may be wondering, "what is the difference between a probate lawyer and an estate planning lawyer?"
Probate cases fall under the legal practice area of estate planning, but it is just one subset of that area of law. Probate attorneys focus on:
So while probate lawyers are a subset of estate planning lawyers, not all estate planning lawyers handle probate cases. And a probate attorney may also be experienced with providing legal counsel on more general estate planning matters.
But because probate cases are unlike any other type in estate planning, familiarity with these cases is crucial.
Experience is key in the probate field. While each case is specific to the individual, many of the same types of issues tend to come up from case to case.
An experienced probate attorney puts you, and the estate being managed, in a more secure position so that you can avoid potential mistakes and get the job done as efficiently as possible.
The cost of a probate lawyer depends on several factors, including:
Attorneys don’t always include the fees they charge on their website, so this is a crucial question to ask when speaking with them.
It may be difficult for the probate attorney to give you a precise estimate from the outset, but they should be able to give you a sense of how much the process could cost and the types of factors that will impact the total fees. Transparency about compensation will help you build a better relationship with the attorney and, more importantly, to avoid being surprised by unexpected expenses down the line.
The time it takes to resolve a probate case depends in large part on the size and the complexity of the deceased's estate the attorney must distribute.
Smaller estates will take a few months, assuming that everything goes smoothly. Larger estates, meanwhile, can take upwards of a year or more to distribute correctly.
Similarly, the types of assets involved can impact the timeline. A simple estate involving cash and maybe a family home will be more straightforward than estates involving intellectual property rights or business assets.
This question not only helps you figure out your own timeline, but it should also help you gauge the abilities and experience of the probate attorney you are speaking with. Again, each timeline is specific to the individual case, but an experienced attorney should be able to give you a sense of the amount of time it should take.
There is no right or wrong way to communicate with your probate attorney. It depends on what you both prefer. Email, text/SMS, phone calls, and video chats are all common means often used for communication with attorneys these days.
It is important to consider what methods of communication you both prefer, and keep in mind that the answer to this question does not necessarily need to be a dealbreaker. But as with any attorney you hire, they are handling quite personal affairs on your behalf, so it is important to understand upfront how you will communicate with your probate attorney.
Again, this is a good question to ask a probate attorney, but there is no “right” answer to this question, either.
Maybe you only want to hear from your probate lawyer when there are major updates, or maybe you would prefer to have periodic check-ins.
Whatever your preferences may be, and whatever the lawyer’s standard practice, the key is to understand what you should expect from the outset.
This is another good question to ask a probate attorney, or any attorney you hire for that matter.
The probate attorney should handle all the court-related tasks (including probate court appearances) when taking on full representation of the probate case. But you may have responsibilities as well, particularly if you are the executor of the will. For instance, the executor must collect and organize the assets as well as pay outstanding bills and financial obligations related to the case.
After consulting with your probate attorney, you could divide up some of the paperwork if you choose to. Either way, the important thing to understand is that your attorney may need your assistance and participation in the case to make sure the probate process moves as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
Probate cases can be challenging to navigate, so it is crucial that you find the right attorney for you. You are trusting this person to help distribute many assets that hold a lot of value, both emotionally and financially, so these questions to ask a probate attorney at an initial consultation can help you to determine whether the lawyer you speak with is the right fit for you.