Trusts and Estates

Selecting a Good Probate Lawyer

Reviewed by Betsy Simmons Hannibal, J.D., Golden Gate University School of Law
When hiring a probate attorney, do some research to find a lawyer that is right for you and your situation.

Talk to a Local Wills And Probate Basics Attorney

When a relative or someone close to you dies, you may need to find a good probate lawyer to help you wrap up that person’s estate. The job of hiring a lawyer may fall to you if:

  • you were named executor (or “personal representative”) in the will
  • the will did not name an executor
  • the named executor is dead or otherwise unavailable, or
  • you believe that the existing executor or probate attorney isn’t doing a good job.

What Kind of Probate Attorney Do You Need?

Generally, there are two types of probate lawyers. Transactional probate attorneys handle the administrative side of probates, and probate litigators represent clients in probate lawsuits. Some lawyers do both, but most of them tend to specialize in one area or the other.

Aim to hire a transactional probate attorney if your loved one has recently died and you simply want to start the probate process. Lawyers with expertise in trusts and estate planning may also be good at transactional probate matters. On the other hand, if you want to challenge the will or are unhappy with way the executor or the current attorney is handling probate—or if you anticipate any other legal battle over the estate--look for a litigator.

You'll want to hire an attorney who regularly handles probate matters, but who also knows enough about other fields to question whether the action being taken might be affected by laws in any other areas of law. For example, if the deceased person had extensive real estate holdings, the lawyer should also know something about real property law.

Where to Find a Good Attorney

One effective way of finding an attorney is to get a personal recommendation from someone you know and trust. Consider asking your friends and colleagues about whether they’ve they have had a good experience with a probate attorney. Those conversations may also yield interesting useful information about what it’s like to work with a probate attorney.

If you aren’t able to get a personal recommendation (or if you aren’t comfortable asking), consider searching for an attorney here at Lawyers.com. You can do a free search to come up with a list of lawyers in your area by entering your zip code into the search box the Find a Lawyer page. Or you can have a lawyer contact you by entering a brief description of your legal issue and requesting a “Free Probate Case Evaluation.”

After you’ve assembled a list of lawyers, use these attributes to narrow your list down to three or four prospective candidates:

  • Biographical information, including undergrad, law school, years practicing. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of probate, trusts and estates, or estate planning?
  • Online search results. Search online for the lawyer and his or her law firm. What do any resulting articles, FAQ's, or information written by the attorney indicate about that lawyer’s legal experience or perspectives? Also, take a look at reviews by former clients on sites like Yelp.
  • References. Ask to talk to clients or former clients who can comment on the lawyer's skills and trustworthiness.
  • State bar association. Search your state’s bar association's website to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.
  • Additional certifications. Is the lawyer certified as a specialist in your state? Such certifications indicate that an attorney has significant experience focusing on these areas of the law. Not every state certifies specialists in probate matters. If not, look to see if the lawyer specializes in trusts and estates or estate planning.
  • Membership in local, state, or national associations. Does the attorney maintain professional memberships—like local probate attorney bars or the American Association of Estate Planning Attorneys? You want an attorney who stays connected to the legal community.
  • Payment. Ask for a copy of the retainer agreement and have the attorney explain it to you. You may end up paying a lot of money to the lawyer you hire, so make sure you understand how payment works before you commit to the relationship.
  • Your special needs. Does the attorney you hire need to have special skills to address your unique circumstances? For example, will you need the lawyer to speak a language other than English, or will the lawyer need to be licensed to practice in more than one state?

Meeting with a Lawyer

After you get your list narrowed down, meet with a handful of attorneys in person. Use your common sense and gut instincts to evaluate the lawyers on your list. You'll want to be comfortable with the lawyer you hire.

Some lawyers will provide a free consultation, but others require an up-front fee. It is usually worth spending a little money to find the right lawyer—even if you have to pay for consultations with several attorneys. In the long right, it will be well worth a few hundred dollars to find the right fit.

Good lawyers are busy, so they may not be able to spend as much time as they would like with prospective clients. But if it takes a lawyer too long to meet with you, it may be a sign that he or she is too busy to give your situation sufficient attention.

You should also anticipate that whomever you hire might have to delegate a lot of responsibility to the in-house staff. In turn, consider how the lawyer's staff treats you, because they are a reflection of how the lawyer practices.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • As executor, what parts of the probate process can I do on my own, without an attorney’s help?
  • The estate owns property in another state, can you handle the probate process there, or can you recommend someone who can?
  • In his will, my father named my sister and me as coexecutors, but she doesn’t want to be involved. Can I do the job without her?
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