Nobody wants to call a probate lawyer. People only call us when they are dealing with the loss of a family member and need help through the process. Over the years, I have been privileged to speak with hundreds of clients and helped address their questions about the probate process in general and my services in particular. From the thousands of questions I received, I believe that seven are essential to ask an attorney before hiring them to represent you:
1. What other areas of law do you practice?
Some attorneys know immigration very well, others are proficient with criminal law, yet others primarily focus on real estate closings. When hiring a probate attorney, ask them (or look at their website) about other areas of law they practice. My experience confirms that attorneys who don’t focus on probate/estates are less likely to properly represent their clients in estate matters. Unfortunately, I have seen the results of attorneys with little experience in estate law try to take on cases which end up on my desk after unreasonable delays.
2. Do you regularly practice before the court to which my case will be assigned?
Every county has its unique way of doing things. Every judge has their own rules. It makes the process smoother and quicker if the attorney has experience in a particular Surrogate’s Court when taking on a case.
3. Have you had similar cases in the past and what was your experience?
This is probably the most important question. This question allows you to understand whether you are speaking with an attorney experienced in estates. It also allows you to hear the attorney’s experience in similar matters. While each case is different and past performance is no guarantee of future results, it is very helpful to have an overview of a similar case so you are more prepared for what may come.
4. What is the approximate time frame for completion?
This is the most frequently asked question I hear with regards to the probate process. I think the reason is that there is much confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the probate process and some clients fear that it will take years (it rarely does). Knowing an approximate time frame is important to know how to plan (and budget) your resources, so feel free to ask your attorney, while keeping in mind that wrinkles and associated delays can sometimes come up in estate work.
5. What potential issues may arise in my case, if any?
An experienced attorney should be able to tell you which nuances of your case may cause delays and how to plan for them. Knowing this information in advance can help you obtain any necessary paperwork in advance, saving time.
6. How easily can I reach an attorney or paralegal if I need to speak with someone?
Clients need to be able to reach the attorney or his or her staff to discuss important developments or to get a status update. Not all law offices are created equally in this regard. Will you speak with an answering machine or a with paralegal who knows your case when you call? Is the office easily reached by email? How quick is their response time? Will you be kept up to date with status updates? Communication is vital to good representation – make sure to ask how the attorney and his staff will treat your calls if you hire their office.
7.What are the estimated legal fees and are there any other fees?
Legal fees can be confusing. Will the attorney be charging a flat fee, hourly fee, or contingency fee? If hourly, how many hours have similar cases taken? If flat fee, what if the matter is more complicated than anticipated? How much will court fees be in my case? Speak to the attorney to find out how they charge and approximately how much you should expect to pay.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is a painful process with much uncertainty. Before hiring an attorney to navigate you through the process, make sure you are in control of the process by starting with these seven questions.