Answers to get from a probate attorney before you hire them
You’ll want to get to know as much as possible about your potential lawyer in the first meeting, so come prepared with as many documents and questions as you can.
Feel free to ask blunt questions about rates, fees, and any other charges you can expect. Be clear about your budget as well.
Ask them to explain their expertise in detail, and how it relates specifically to your loved one’s case—and to estimate how long probate might take and how much their work will cost you.
Remember, it is well within your rights to know who will be working on your case and to meet them as well.
When you are starting the process of dealing with a loved one’s assets, debts, final wishes, and more in order to settle their affairs and guide the estate through probate, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with what’s to come. Especially if you are devastated by the death of someone you love, the checklist is long and can be time-consuming—often requiring hundreds of hours of work over months.
In times like this, support from an attorney who specializes in estate law can be a crucial life line, to help you avoid mistakes that can cost you time and money—especially if your loved one left behind a complicated estate.
For instance, an attorney may be helpful if there is any dispute over the validity of the will, if you live far away from your loved one’s home state, or if there are issues of debt or family disagreements, just to name a few potentially thorny issues.
Finding a lawyer who is right for you and your family’s needs is essential, though. Whether you find them through a personal recommendation or you interview several attorneys, you’ll want to ask them several key questions before making commitment.
What documents can you bring to your first meeting?
But the attorney may request other paperwork—and you’ll want to show up at your first meeting with as many documents as you can, so the meeting is as productive as possible. Even if you end up bringing more than necessary, it’s better than not having enough.
For example, deeds to all properties that were owned by your loved one, bills that need to be taken care of, a list of creditors, and names and addresses of all the beneficiaries are just the beginning. These documents, as well as others the attorney may request, will give them a full picture of your loved one’s estate.
What is their expertise?
If this is someone you’re going to work with closely as you go through the probate process, you want to have a good feeling about them and trust them. Ask about their experience with estate law: How long they’ve been practicing, how much experience they have in probate court, and if they’ve ever worked on an estate similar to the one your loved one left behind.
If you have a complicated estate on your hands, you don’t want to hire someone who’s relatively new to probate law. You want someone who’s extremely experienced so if there are issues or snafus along the way, you feel comfortable knowing your lawyer can handle it.
What are their rates?
One of the reasons you want to consider meeting with more than one lawyer is not only because you want to make sure you feel comfortable with them, but to see if their rates are within your budget.
Lawyers are expensive, so don’t be afraid to communicate very clearly about your budget and ask for clarity about their rates and any potential fees. There are often extra charges for things like making copies of documents and other administrative work.
Lawyers are expensive, so don’t be afraid to communicate very clearly about your budget and ask for clarity about their rates and any potential fees.
While a lawyer may not be able to give you an exact amount that you will end up having to pay, you want to have an idea of what to expect. While any attorney you hire will be paid with funds from the estate, those payments reduce the value of what will ultimately be distributed to your loved one’s beneficiaries—so you want to spend every dollar wisely.
How do they plan to handle the estate?
During that first meeting, get an idea of how the attorney plans to tackle the process. If you’ve never dealt with probate before, don’t be afraid to ask the attorney how it all works, step-by-step, from the very beginning to the end.
Ask them how they plan to handle any possible issues that might come up and how long they expect the process to last.
Just as no attorney can quote you an exact dollar figure for what handling the estate will cost, they won’t be able to predict the exact date that the process will be completed. But an experienced attorney should be able to give you an estimate.
What potential issues might delay the process?
Depending on how complex the estate is, your attorney might be bombarded with a lot of extra drama that initially wasn’t obvious in the beginning.
Asking them what common and uncommon issues that might come up to delay the whole process will give you a good idea of just how experienced the attorney is. You want a probate attorney who’s seen it all, so they already know how to navigate through the complexities that arise.
What is their availability?
If you’re paying someone to handle the estate of a loved one, you want to know that should you have a question or concern, you won’t be waiting for days for a response.
Ask them long it typically takes for them to respond to a phone call or email. Ideally, you want a lawyer who says they’ll get back to you within 24 hours at the latest.
Who will be handling the case?
Depending on the size of the estate and the work involved, your attorney may involve paralegals, assistants, or maybe even other lawyers to help out.
If this is a possibility and your attorney can already see that during the first meeting, you have every right to know who those people will be and ask to meet them.
There might also be a situation where the attorney you’re meeting with knows deep down that the estate is way out of their area of expertise and, therefore, will be passing it on to a colleague.
In that situation, the attorney should tell you that they have a colleague better suited for you and introduce them to you, as opposed to taking on the case and then passing it along without your knowledge.
It is well within your rights to ask who will be working on your case, and any good attorney should give you direct and easily understood answers.
While every probate case will involve slightly different issues, these are the essential questions you’ll want to bring up with any attorney you might hire. In order to do right by your loved one and honor their wishes, it is helpful to ask as many questions as you need to in order to put your mind at ease during this emotional and busy time.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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