Working With a Probate Lawyer

If you're the executor of an estate, here are some tips for a successful working relationship with a probate lawyer.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Once you've found a lawyer to handle your probate case—or just to coach you as you take care of wrapping up a simple estate—what happens next? Even if you've hired a lawyer for a divorce, business matter, or real estate purchase, working with a probate lawyer will probably be a different experience. To make it a successful one will take effort from both you and the lawyer.

Learn about finding a probate lawyer.

Your Basic Working Relationship

There are essentially two ways to get help from a lawyer when you're an executor: You can turn a probate case over a lawyer, or you can take on primary responsibility for handling the probate yourself and consult a lawyer only when you have questions or need limited help.

The Traditional Route: Full Representation

The conventional way to handle a probate is to turn it over to a local lawyer who's experienced with this area of the law. You can't exactly sit back and relax—it's still your responsibility to gather and safeguard assets, pay bills, and take inventory, just for starters. But you might feel better knowing that an expert is handling all the court-related tasks, which in a probate usually means preparing and filing paperwork. (Unless there's a dispute, which is rare, there won't be any adversarial proceedings in the courtroom.)

If you want a lawyer to take responsibility for shepherding the estate through probate, you can still do some work yourself. Especially if you're paying by the hour, pitching in can help keep costs down.

Wrapping up an estate always involves sorting through the deceased person's papers—lots of them—and making phone calls to various agencies and institutions. You can take on a lot of this work yourself; a lawyer isn't required. Talk to the lawyer and make sure you're both clear about who is responsible for what tasks, so effort isn't wasted and important tasks aren't neglected. For example, make sure you know who is going to:

  • order certified copies of the death certificate
  • deposit the original will with the appropriate probate court
  • come up with an inventory of the property in the estate
  • have valuable property appraised, if necessary, and
  • prepare and file the deceased person's final income tax return (and one for the estate, if necessary).

Learn more about an executor's duties.

    Hiring a Lawyer as a Coach

    If you're willing to take primary responsibility for handling the probate yourself, you might find a lawyer who is open to giving you limited legal help (sometimes called "unbundled services") instead of handling all aspects of the probate case. For example, you might hire a lawyer just to answer specific questions during the probate process.

    The vast majority of probate cases are just paperwork. If no one is fighting over the estate, and especially if your court provides fill-in-the-blanks probate forms, as many do, you might be able to handle most of the probate yourself.

    Be sure that both you and the lawyer are clear on what you're each agreeing to handle, and put your agreement in writing.

    It's a good idea to be in touch regularly with beneficiaries; otherwise they might not understand what's going on and how long the process takes. Sending periodic letters or emails is an easy way to keep folks up to date. You might ask the lawyer to look at your communications before you send them to make sure you're getting everything right.

    Working Together Efficiently

    Whatever your arrangement with the lawyer, there are a few things you can do to make your working relationship productive.

    Get the lawyer needed information. You'll need to provide inventories and documents such as deeds, insurance policies, and tax returns. If you don't, the case will be delayed.

    Ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask about anything you're unsure of. But try to be efficient when you communicate. (If you're being billed by the hour, this will save you money.) If you can, save up a few questions and ask them during one phone call or visit to the lawyer. But if you're ever unsure about taking a particular action that will affect the estate—for example, you want to give a needy beneficiary his inheritance months before the probate case will close—get legal advice before you act.

    Keep on top of how the case is going. The beneficiaries will probably call you, not the lawyer, when they get impatient about collecting their inheritances, so you'll want to be able to explain what's happening with the case and when they can expect their money. The lawyer can give you a list of important dates—for example, the cutoff date for creditors to submit formal claims and the final probate court hearing date.

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