If you think you need a probate lawyer, it's probably because a relative or someone close to you has died (the "decedent"). The first thing you must do is figure out what kind of probate lawyer you want. Generally speaking, there are two types of probate lawyers:
Transactional Lawyers: Those who handle the administrative side of probates, and
Probate Litigators: those who represent clients in will contests and other lawsuits over an estate.
Some lawyers do both, but most of them tend to specialize in one area or the other. If you're involved in a lawsuit over an estate, or if you may end up in one, look for a litigator. Otherwise, a lawyer who handles transactional side of probates may be your best bet. In many if not most instances, lawyers with expertise in trusts and estate planning are also good at probate matters.
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.
If you don't already have a list of prospective lawyers, a great place to start your search is right here at USA-Probate.com. You can do a free search to come up with a list of lawyers by using the search box that can be accessed from anywhere on USA-Probate.com. 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:
Look at their biographical information. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of probate, trusts and estates, or estate planning?
Use search engines to surf the Web. 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 done that that give you a level of comfort?
Ask other people if they have heard of the attorneys and what they think about them.
Is the lawyer certified as a specialist in your state? Bear in mind, however, that not every state certifies specialists in probate matters. If not, look to see if the lawyer specializes in trusts and estates or estate planning.
You will probably want to hire a lawyer with at least a few years of experience. However, experience does not a good lawyer make. Every practicing attorney knows other lawyers that he or she would not hire.
Unless there are special circumstances, you'll want to hire a lawyer with a local office.
Before you hire a lawyer, 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.
Ask to be provided with a copy of the lawyer's retainer agreement and have it explained to you before decide on retaining the lawyer or the lawyer's 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 any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English?
You shouldn't necessarily cross a lawyer off your list just because he or she didn't have the time to meet with you on short notice. Nor should you expect to be able to discuss your matter on the telephone with the 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 his or her 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. At a minimum, you should expect to be treated courteously and professionally both by the staff and by the lawyer.
You should be prepared to pay a fee to meet the lawyer. If you're hiring a lawyer to do an uncontested probate, though, the chances are that he or she will handle the matter for a flat fee, which in most instances is set by statute. Regardless, it doesn't hurt when making an appointment to ask what the fee for the first meeting would be.
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.
Being Prepared to Meet with a Probate Attorney:
It can be a big waste of time for both you and the lawyer if you aren't prepared for your first meeting. Being unprepared may also end up costing you money, because it will take longer for the lawyer you hire to get up to speed on your legal matter.
First of all, the lawyer will want to know who you are and how you can be contacted. The lawyer may also want to know whom you represent and whether other persons may be present for the meeting. For example, in many probate matters, a child visits the lawyer to seek help for his or her parents or siblings. The lawyer will clearly want to understand your relationship, why you are seeking help for the person, and why the person is unable to seek the lawyer's help personally. You should be prepared to bring with you any documents that will "prove" your authority, such as a will or living trust document of the decedent that names you as the personal representative.
Many times, a probate lawyer will try to speed the information-gathering process by sending you a questionnaire to fill out in advance. If this happens, be sure to follow the lawyer's instructions for completing the questionnaire.
You may also be asked to send information to the lawyer's office before the meeting. Regardless, make sure you bring it with you for the meeting. Also send along or bring copies of any available documents that may be requested in the questionnaire. This documentation would typically include:
Copies of wills or trusts of the decedent
Copies of deeds to all real property
Copies of life insurance policies
Copies of prior gift tax returns, if any
Copies of trust agreements in which husband and/or wife are a donor or beneficiary.
If the decedent has applied for public benefits (such as Medicaid or Social Security), you should bring copies of documents relative to the applications
Even if a lawyer doesn't ask for documentation beforehand, it's still a good idea to bring a copy of all documents relevant to your situation to the meeting. Spend some time thinking about what you may have on hand. Try to organize the documents in a logical manner before you meet with the lawyer.
Prepare a list of questions to take with you to your first meeting. In theory, no question is too silly to ask. Keep in mind, though, that you don't want to scare a lawyer out of representing you. Questions you might ask a lawyer would include:
What would the lawyer like to see in order to evaluate your situation?
How many similar matters has he or she handled?
What percent of his or her practice is in the area of expertise that you need?
What problems does the lawyer foresee with your case?
How would the lawyer go about handling your situation? What is the process?
How long will it take to bring the matter to a conclusion?
How would the lawyer charge for his or her services?
Would the lawyer handle the case personally or would it be passed on to some other lawyer in the firm? If other lawyers or staff may do some of the work, could you meet them?
Meeting the Attorney:
Treat your first meeting as a business consultation. Dress well and be prompt. Be polite and courteous. You will want to impress the lawyer, just as he or she will be trying to impress you.
Give a lawyer the chance to get to know you. Don't feel compelled right off the bat to blurt out everything you want to tell the lawyer about your legal issues or needs. Many times, a lawyer will want to get some background information and even shoot the breeze a bit. This opportunity will provide both you and the lawyer with the chance to evaluate each other on an informal basis.
Let the lawyer do the talking initially. You'll have all sorts of information that you'll want to relate, but the lawyer will be better able to hone in on the background facts that he or she feels are relevant or important. The more prepared you are with documents and your own questions, the easier this process will be, and the more you will impress the lawyer.
During your initial consultation, you'll want to be able to share all relevant information with the lawyer. Even if you don't end up hiring the lawyer, everything you tell him or her during your meeting is subject to the attorney-client privilege, so honesty is the best policy.
Depending upon how well prepared you are, the lawyer may even be able to give you advice on how to proceed. This could be especially important when time is of the essence. By the end of your meeting, you should leave with a clear understanding of what you've accomplished.
If the lawyer is willing to represent you, you should be told what he or she charges for services. You may be presented with a contract that is called a retainer agreement or a legal services agreement. The lawyer should explain it to you. Read and understand the document before you think about signing it. At that time, or before services are rendered, you may also be asked to provide a retainer or deposit up front.
Be clear on what is to happen next, and then be sure to follow through on whatever you have been asked to do by your new attorney. The attorney will insist on cooperation from your end. If it's not clearly spelled out in a retainer agreement, also be sure to ask the lawyer how he or she would prefer to communicate with you, and then keep in contact regularly with your attorney.
You probably wouldn't be meeting with the lawyer in the first place if you weren't ready to hire somebody. While you may still change your mind at almost any point, be prepared to proceed forward by bringing a checkbook and/or a credit card to pay a retainer to the lawyer if he or she asks before moving forward. Keep in mind that lawyers cost a lot of money and you will be expected to pay for their services. From the lawyer's perspective, a client who is unwilling to pay a retainer up front for good legal advice may not be willing to pay for it down the road.