Probate is a frustrating experience. It’s one of those experiences that not many people have to deal with since it is primarily the responsibility of an executor. So while most people are allowed some time to grieve, an executor is often grieving while actively working through the probate process and it’s not a very pleasant experience.
That’s one of the key reasons why people look to hire a probate lawyer. But considering how little experience most people have in this field, they’re often not quite sure how to go about that. Sure, they can Google “probate lawyer” and click on the first result; but how can they tell if that lawyer is actually any good or can deliver on what they promise?
The only way to find out is to ask questions. But what questions should you ask? That’s what we’re going to explore today. We’ll quickly look at what a probate lawyer does and then use this to help us figure out what questions we should ask. We’ll even touch on when somebody that isn’t an executor may wish to speak to a probate lawyer as well.
What Does a Probate Lawyer Do?
Probate is the process through which a deceased individual’s will is shown to be valid. Afterward, the court then determines how their assets and properties will be passed to beneficiaries.
Generally speaking, probate is most often associated with death’s where there was no will. However, there are other ways to enter into probate such as when somebody contests the will or when specific property must go through probate in order to be distributed.
A probate lawyer works with the executor of an estate to:
- Collect proceeds from life insurance
- Identify and secure estate assets
- Obtain appraisals
- Assist in the payment of debts
- Prepare and file all the necessary paperwork
- Determine what estate taxes are due
- Resolving income tax problems
- Manage the estates checking account
- Transfer assets
- Make a final disbursement of assets once the taxes and debts are settled
Not every executor is going to use a lawyer for each step on that list. Perhaps you can obtain appraisals easily enough but you could use some assistance with the paperwork and determining potential tax issues. A probate lawyer will work with you on the steps you need help with.
What Questions Should I Ask a Probate Lawyer?
There are two sets of questions that you should ask your probate lawyer. The first set is to determine their experience and knowledge. If you ask about their knowledge, be wary of them slipping into legalese to confuse you. A good lawyer will strive to communicate with their clients in layman’s terms whenever necessary to facilitate understanding.
That’s why it’s better to focus on numbers in this round of questions. These are concrete facts about the lawyer’s history in the field. These questions include:
- How many estates have you settled?
- Have you ever resolved estate disputes through mediation?
- Do you have any experience dealing with contested estates?
- Can you handle the sale of real estate or assets under the terms of the will?
- How do you stay in contact with your clients?
- How long will the probate process take?
- Can you provide references?
There are other concerns that go into picking a probate lawyer, such as the cost of their services, but these will help you to get a sense of their skills and experience.
Once you decide on an attorney, there are a number of questions that can help you figure out what steps need to be taken. Questions like:
- What documents will I need?
- How does probate work? What steps will you take?
- What are my responsibilities as an executor?
- How are creditors handled?
- Does any part of the estate seem like it will be a bigger issue than the rest? What should we do to tackle that?
- What’s our first step?
These questions will get you onto the same page as the probate lawyer and give you a good idea of what they believe you should be doing first. At this point, if you haven’t hired them yet, you will have more than enough information to decide whether or not you want to.
Keep in mind that this is written from the point of view that you are the executor. In most cases it will be them that works with a probate lawyer. However, there is at least one instance when another party may need to speak to a probate lawyer.
What Should I Do If Somebody Is Mishandling the Estate?
If you believe that the executor of the estate is mishandling the estate’s assets then it is also a good idea to meet with a probate lawyer. You’re going to need to take swift action but the process is overly complicated and complex.
In order to ensure that the estate is protected from misuse, it’s important to act quickly in order to prevent further loss. However, you will also need to be able to back up your suspicions with some compelling evidence. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a smoking gun, though that would be nice.
It is good to be prepared in this case. When speaking with a probate lawyer, ask what items and information they need and provide it with them quickly. They will be able to walk you through what actions need to be taken. While moving quickly is important, don’t forget that it’s also important to understand what actions you’re taking. Make sure to ask questions throughout so you can be sure that you stand by everything.
Is a Probate Lawyer Worth the Cost?
That depends on your own opinion. If it is worth it to speed up the probate process by working with a professional that knows what needs to be done, then it is worth it. But some estates might be too small to really require the services of a lawyer. Others may have been set up in a manner to reduce the need for probate in the first place.
Ask questions about the costs, whether it’s hourly or a flat fee, and then use this information to make your own decision about whether or not it is not it is worth the headache to go at this alone or whether the services of a professional probate lawyer could make your life easier.