What to Consider When Hiring a Probate Lawyer
The process of probating an estate can be emotionally sensitive and legally complex. While not every probate proceeding requires an attorney, certain situations may benefit from legal guidance. These may include situations in which substantial or unusual assets are passing through probate, family relationships are strained, the estate may be subject to estate tax, or probate laws in your state are complex. If you are an executor, you may want to consult a lawyer if the deceased person accumulated substantial debts, which must be paid from their estate. The lawyer can advise you on which of these debts will take priority. Meanwhile, if you are a beneficiary who is considering a will contest, you should seek legal counsel immediately. The stakes are high in these cases because many wills contain no-contest clauses, which prevent someone from inheriting property through the will if they unsuccessfully challenge it.
Deciding who is the right lawyer for you can be challenging. A basic Google search can be a good place to start, but this should be only a first step. Google searches will lead to a wide range of results, including many paid listings that do not necessarily reflect the skill of a lawyer or their aptitude for your case. Similarly, you might gain useful insights from talking to friends or colleagues who have hired a probate attorney, but the right fit for them may not be the right fit for you. Each situation is unique. Here are certain guidelines that can help you knowledgeably research and compare attorneys.
Background and Experience
The areas of estate planning and probate overlap, and many attorneys practice in both areas. However, you should be aware that they are not the same. Not every attorney who can devise a will is equipped to handle probate administration or litigation. You will need to hire a lawyer who is familiar with the distinctive procedures in probate court. Ideally, you should hire a lawyer who has substantial experience assisting people in situations similar to yours. For example, if you are suspicious about a generous grant of property to your loved one’s professional caregiver, you should retain an attorney who has litigated will contests based on undue influence. If the executor for your loved one’s estate fails to competently perform their duties, you should hire a lawyer who knows what it takes to remove an executor. Some attorneys may have relevant board certifications or memberships in professional organizations. They may have received awards or other formal recognition of their legal prowess.
In general, you should aim to hire an attorney without a history of serious disciplinary issues. Information about an attorney’s professional record can be found by searching for them on the state bar website for their jurisdiction. You may want to review the details of any disciplinary action to get a sense of the events leading to it. Some violations are less significant than others. You may not want to automatically remove an attorney from your consideration based on a very minor infraction if they are currently in good standing.
On the other hand, a record of serious violations should be a red flag, even if the attorney has achieved some good results. You do not want egregious mistakes by your attorney to result in the loss of rights or interests that you could have protected otherwise.
Reviews and Testimonials
Reviews by previous clients can give you a sense of what it would be like to work with an attorney. You may find insights into their personality, level of professionalism, and communication skills. Client reviews can be helpful even if the details of your case are different from a previous client’s case. However, beware of very brief reviews that are harshly negative or effusively positive without providing details. These reviews may not be trustworthy.
If an attorney has received favorable reviews from other attorneys, this may indicate that they have a strong reputation in the legal community. They may be more likely to be respected by other people involved in the proceedings, such as judges and opposing counsel, which can help resolve your matter more favorably and efficiently.
Sometimes a probate lawyer will discuss their most notable successes on their website or blog. You should not assume that you will receive the same result as a previous client. However, a history of positive results for people in roughly similar situations to yours can be a promising sign. You may also gain insight into the matters in which an attorney performs most impressively if many of their strongest results involve the same type of issue.
Some probate lawyers offer a free consultation to prospective clients, while others provide a consultation for a reasonable fee. The consultation helps the client and the attorney decide whether they are the right fit for each other. Even if you are impressed by an attorney’s credentials and achievements, you should not choose them on that basis alone. Instead, you should make sure to work with a lawyer whom you can trust and who relates well to you. You should feel that your lawyer is personally invested in your situation, rather than treating you as just another case number. Ideally, you should set up consultations with several attorneys before deciding whom to hire.
Bringing a list of questions to the consultation can help you decide whether an attorney is the right fit. For example, you may want to describe your goals and ask how likely you are to attain them, based on what the attorney sees as the strengths and weaknesses of your position. You should not expect a precise answer, but a general impression can help set your expectations. An optimistic answer may be encouraging, but you should think twice if an attorney makes guarantees or seems much more confident than their competitors. They may be overpromising. Also, you should listen to how the attorney explains their evaluation. They should be able to articulate their reasoning in a way that is coherent and accessible to a non-lawyer.
Fees are another important issue to address at the consultation. Some probate lawyers charge an hourly rate, while others charge a flat fee for certain types of services. In a few states, including California and Florida, the attorney fee may be calculated as a percentage of the value of the estate. However, a client may not want to pay a percentage fee because it is based on the gross value rather than the net value of the probate assets. Some attorneys in these states may be open to negotiating an hourly rate or flat fee instead. Any fee arrangement should be clearly set out in the representation agreement so that you understand your obligations.
Attorney fees may not be the only expenses that you need to consider. A probate proceeding may involve additional costs, such as filing fees, publication fees, and recording fees. Further expenses may arise during litigation, such as service fees, witness fees, and court reporter fees. When you are calculating the cost of a proceeding, or considering whether a dispute is financially viable, you should take these costs into account as well.
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