Most people, thankfully, don’t need to hire a lawyer very many times in their lives. And even if you’ve gone to a lawyer for a business matter, real estate transaction, or a divorce, working with a probate lawyer is likely to be a different kind of experience. Some things are the same whenever you hire a lawyer, though: to fully understand what’s going on, you will probably need to ask a lot of questions, and to keep costs down, you will have to take on some of the routine work yourself. Here are some issues to think about as you begin your relationship with a probate lawyer.
(Not sure if you should handle the process yourself? See this.)
When you’re winding up an estate, there’s usually a lot of legwork to be done—things like making phone calls and gathering documents. Many of these tasks don’t need to be done by someone with a law degree. So if you’re paying the lawyer by the hour, you’ll probably want to volunteer to take on some of this work yourself. Just make sure it’s clear who is responsible for what tasks, so things don’t fall between the cracks. For example, make sure you know who is going to:
Keep in mind that many lawyers are more flexible than they used to be about offering what’s often called "limited representation" or "unbundled services." In other words, many lawyers no longer insist on taking responsibility for all the work of a probate case. They will agree to provide limited services—for example, answering your questions during the probate process—while you take on other tasks traditionally done by the lawyer, such as drawing up the probate court papers. Especially if your court provides fill-in-the-blanks probate forms, this kind of arrangement may be good for you. Be sure to get your agreement in writing, so both you and the lawyer are clear on your responsibilities.
It’s a good idea to ask the lawyer for a list of deadlines—for example, when is the cutoff for creditors to submit formal claims, and when will the final probate hearing be held? This will be helpful both if there are things you need to do, and if creditors or beneficiaries contact you with questions.
If everyone gets along, it probably makes sense for you, not the lawyer, to field questions from beneficiaries. It will save money, and you’ll know what beneficiaries are concerned about. If you send regular letters or emails to beneficiaries to keep them up to date (this usually helps keep them from fretting), you might ask the lawyer to review your communications before you send them, to make sure you’ve got everything right.
Check in with the lawyer regular to see if anything is happening with the probate case. Usually, no news is good news. State law requires you to keep the probate case open for months, to give people time to come forward with disputes or claims—but in most probates, beneficiaries don’t argue about anything in court, and few creditors submit formal claims.
By all means, ask the lawyer any questions you have about the proceeding. But if the lawyer is charging by the hour, try to be efficient when you communicate. If you can, save up a few questions and ask them during one phone call or visit to the lawyer. But if you are unsure about taking a particular action that will affect the estate—for example, you want to give one needy beneficiary his inheritance months before the probate case will close—get legal advice before you act.