An executor or another individual responsible for a decedent’s estate may need a lawyer to help navigate the probate process. Executors of small, uncomplicated estates may be able to successfully complete the process without the help of a lawyer, but an executor may benefit from a probate lawyer’s expertise in a number of ways. Probate attorneys may help when the estate is particularly large or complicated or when probate litigation, such as a will contest or will construction litigation, is likely.
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 matter. Similarly, you might gain useful insights from talking to anyone whom you know and trust who has hired a probate attorney, but the right fit for them may not be the right fit for you. Each probate matter is unique. Here are certain guidelines that can help you knowledgeably research and compare attorneys.
Whom Does a Probate Attorney Represent?
A probate attorney may represent an executor of an estate or a beneficiary, but not both. This likely would be a conflict of interest.
Background and Experience
You should hire a lawyer who has substantial experience assisting people during probate. Not every probate lawyer understands the complexities that can arise during probate, especially probate litigation. The areas of estate planning and probate law commonly overlap, but a lawyer experienced in estate planning, such as drafting wills and trusts, may not necessarily be experienced in probate issues arising after a decedent has died. You will want to be sure that your probate attorney is experienced in the specific issues likely to arise in your case. For example, if you believe that a beneficiary is likely to object to your interpretation of the will, it is important that your probate attorney has experience litigating will interpretation and construction disputes. If you think that the estate will have a hard time paying its debts, you should hire a lawyer experienced in insolvent estates. 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 affect the outcome of the probate matter or expose you to personal liability.
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 matter are different from a previous client’s matter. 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 judges, attorneys, and other professionals, which can help resolve any probate issues more favorably and efficiently.
Sometimes a probate lawyer will discuss their most notable successes on their website or blog. Each matter hinges on its own facts, so you should not rely on a past outcome as a prediction of the outcome of your probate matter. However, a history of positive results for people in roughly similar situations to yours can be a promising sign. You may also gain insights into the matters in which an attorney performs most impressively if many of their strongest results involve the same type of situation.
Some probate lawyers offer a free consultation to prospective clients, while others provide a consultation for a reasonable fee. You can set up a consultation by phone or online after providing some initial details about your matter. 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 business opportunity. 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 ask about their initial impressions of the issues apparent in your probate matter. 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 and Costs
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. A few states allow a lawyer to take a percentage of the gross value of the estate. Some lawyers offer limited representation in which the lawyer only performs certain services, such as conducting legal research on a specific issue, which can curb potential attorneys’ fees. You should inquire as to how much work the attorney estimates will be done by paralegals and how paralegal work is billed.
In addition to attorneys’ fees, a probate matter may involve court costs and expenses, such as appraisal fees and publication costs. Any fee arrangement, including how court costs and expenses will be paid, should be clearly set out in the representation agreement so that you understand your obligations. An executor usually may pay a probate attorney’s fees from estate funds.