Making sure your relationship with your probate attorney is productive
Whether you consult with a lawyer on specific issues or you hire them to manage the entire probate process for you, working well together is crucial.
Maintaining professional conduct and establishing clear roles will make probate an easier process.
Put the plan down in writing: who is responsible for what, and what deadlines need to bet met.
From there, oversee the process by watching progress and deadlines closely, keeping thorough records, and responding quickly to requests from your lawyer.
Serving as executor or administrator of an estate can be a complicated, time-consuming, and detail-oriented process—all at a critical time, when you are dealing with the death of one of the most important people in your life.
When you’re an executor or personal representative for an estate, you can choose to engage a probate attorney to handle all matters or some matters (with fees generally paid by the estate).
Your attorney can take responsibility for shepherding the entire estate through probate, or you can remain the administrator and consult a lawyer only when you have questions or need help with some tasks
How you decide to engage the attorney depends on your budget, your available time (including proximity to the estate jurisdiction), the complexity of the case (financially and emotionally), and your skill level with administrative matters.
No matter the arrangement, a good working relationship can make estate management a less demanding experience.
Be as thorough as possible right from the beginning
When you and your attorney start your working relationship, complete all forms and provide responses as thoroughly as you can. The less complete your responses, the more questions your attorney will have, which prolongs the process and increases costs.
Before your first meeting, you can save yourself time and stress by gathering as much of the following information as you can:
Full information on your loved one, including address, marital status, birth date, Social Security number, veteran status, employment status, business ownership, and Medicaid status
The will and any trust documents
A copy of a paid funeral bill or budget for funeral expenses
Death certificate, or obituary if the death certificate is not available
Name, address, Social Security number, and relationship of anyone named in the will
A list of all known assets and debts
Banking information, including retirement statements, if applicable
Recent tax returns
Any other relevant information about the estate
Write down roles and responsibilities
After you talk to your attorney and decide on the role you want them to play and the responsibilities you want to take on (if any), be sure that both parties are clear and put your agreement in writing.
It may be helpful to have a checklist of tasks to review so that important deadlines are not missed and that you understand fully what each person’s role entails and how much you will be billed.
Even if your role is hands-off, you are still ultimately responsible for managing the probate process.
It can be helpful to keep an electronic (or paper) file of everything you receive, record the dates when you send important documents, and note due dates and appointments on a calendar dedicated to this process.
Read everything and ask questions
Navigating formal legal documents can be difficult for anyone who isn’t trained in the language of the courts—and can be especially confusing in times of grief, when you may be forgetful or have issues with concentration and focus.
Although the estate may incur a charge for your attorney to respond to a question, that cost is probably far less than a mistake.
Don't be afraid to ask about anything you're unsure of, including what you’re being charged for or whether you should take a particular action, so you aren’t surprised later. Although the estate may incur a charge for your attorney to respond, that cost is probably far less than a mistake. It can be more efficient (and less costly) to write down your questions when you think of them and save them up to ask all at one time, if at all possible.
Stay on top of the case
The probate lawyer may be handling the court work, but if any beneficiary has questions, they are going to contact you directly.
If probate is taking a long time or someone is questioning your role as executor, you’ll want to be able to state clearly where things are in the process, what milestones are coming up, and when the estate can expect to be resolved.
If you are organized and keep notes, you can respond confidently and with more emotional control, especially if your communication with the person triggers your grief or reminds you of uncomfortable family history.
Keep communication flowing
If your attorney needs information, a decision, or a signature, it's best not to make them wait or force them to follow up. It can be time-consuming and costly for your lawyer’s office to chase you for the additional input. Plus, it can delay your case or become an issue if deadlines are missed.
If you need more time or have questions, let them know as soon as possible. Or if you don’t feel up to having a conversation, send an email or leave a voice mail.
When a loved one dies, grief can make it difficult to be the executor. Hiring a probate attorney to help you manage probate can allow you to responsibly step back and spend your time healing and dealing with your everyday matters. Although you’ll still have to perform estate-related duties, you just may feel better knowing that an expert is handling the court-related tasks ●
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