When a relative or someone who was close to you has died (called the "decedent") and has left you money or property or has named you as executor of their will, it a good idea to find a lawyer to help you get through the process.
Your First Steps
Generally, there are two types of probate lawyers: those who handle the administrative side of probates - transactional, and those who represent clients in lawsuits, called probate litigators.
Some lawyers do both, but most of them tend to specialize in one area or the other. Usually, a lawyer who handles transactional side of probates may be your best bet. In many instances, lawyers with expertise in trusts and estate planning are also good at probate matters. If you're involved in a lawsuit over an estate, or if you may end up in one, look for a litigator.
You'll want to hire the attorney who regularly handles probate matters, but who also know 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 decedent had extensive real estate holdings, the lawyer should also know something about real property law.
Where to Find an Attorney
If you don't already have a list of prospective lawyers, a great place to start your search is right here at Lawyers.com. You can do a free search to come up with a list of lawyers in your area by using the Find A Lawyer search box that can be accessed from anywhere on the site.
Once you have a list of lawyers, use the following guidelines to do some initial screening and 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?
- Search results. Do searches under the name of the lawyer and his or her law firm. Can you find any articles, FAQ's or other informational pieces that the lawyer has provided that that give you more information?
- Ask for references. You want to talk to people who could comment on the lawyer's skills and trustworthiness. Ask if it is okay to talk to some of the lawyer's representative clients, or read reviews.
- State bar association. Wisit the bar association's web site to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.
- Additional certifications. Is the lawyer certified as a specialist in your state? 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. One example would be the American Association of Estate Planning Attorneys.
- Payment. Ask for a copy of the retainer agreement and have it explained to you before decide on retaining the lawyer or law firm. You may end up paying a lot of money to the lawyer you hire, so make sure you understand what you are signing up for.
Consider Your Special Needs
Could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English? Do you need an attorney with the ability to pratice in more than one state?
Meeting with a Lawyer
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, an important consideration should be to assess the way the lawyer's staff treats you since they are a reflection of how the lawyer practices.
Some lawyers will provide a free consultation, but others may require an up-front fee. Most cases are handled for a flat fee, which in most instances is set by law. Regardless, it doesn't hurt when making an appointment to ask about the fee for the first meeting.
Use your common sense and gut instincts to evaluate the remaining lawyers on your list. You'll want to be comfortable with the lawyer you hire. You want to choose the best lawyer who you think will do the best job for you.