If you think you need a probate lawyer, it's probably because a relative or someone who was close to you has died (called the "decedent"). This is a tough time to try to find a lawyer, but it still has to be done.
The first thing you must do is figure out what kind of probate lawyer you want. Generally speaking, there are basically two types of probate lawyers: those who handle the administrative side of probates (who can loosely be called transactional lawyers), and those who represent clients in fights over who gets the estate (called probate litigators). 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.
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 biographical information, including whatever you can find on Web sites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of probate, trusts and estates, or estate planning? Do they have any information on their Web sites that is helpful to you?
- 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.
- Contact your state bar association or visit the bar association's Web site to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.
- 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.
- Check the membership directory of local, state or national associations. Is the lawyer listed? One example would be the American Association of Estate Planning Attorneys.
- Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
- 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 for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials. Crosscheck these materials against other sources and references.
- 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.