Selecting a Probate Attorney

If you think you are in need of a probate attorney, it's most likely because a relative or someone close to you has died. This is a difficult time to try to find an attorney, but it must be done.

Generally speaking, there are two areas of probate practice which most people are accustomed to: (1) the administrative side of probate and (2) the litigation side (involving lawsuits over who is entitled to the estate assets). 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 a probate estate, or if you may end up in one, look for an attorney who litigates. Otherwise, a lawyer who handles the transactional (administration) side of probates may be your best bet.

You'll want to hire the attorney who regularly handles probate matters, but who also knows 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 deceased person had extensive real estate holdings, the lawyer should also be versed in real property law.

Once you have found an attorney, look at any biographical information, including whatever you can find on websites for the attorneys and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of probate or trusts and estates? Do they have any information on their websites that is helpful to you?

Use search engines to surf the Web. Conduct searches under the name of the lawyer and his or her law firm. Can you find any articles, FAQs or other informational pieces that the lawyer has done that give you a level of comfort? Ask other people if they have heard of the attorney and what they think about him or her. Contact your state bar association or visit the bar association's website to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.

Check the membership directory of local, state or national associations. Is the lawyer listed?

You will probably want to hire a lawyer with at least a few years of experience. However, experience does not always make for a good lawyer. Every practicing attorney knows other lawyers that he or she would not hire.

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 you decide on retaining the lawyer or the lawyer's law firm. You or the estate may end up paying a lot of money to the lawyer you hire, so make sure you understand what you are signing up for.

You shouldn't necessarily eliminate an attorney 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 fully discuss your matter on the telephone with the lawyer. Good lawyers are busy, so they may not be able to spend as much time on the phone 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 whichever attorney 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.

Most of all, use your common sense and intuition (gut instincts) to evaluate the attorney you are interested in hiring. You'll want to be comfortable with the one you hire and so choose the best lawyer whom you think will do the best job for you.