Intake Questionnaire: Initial Meeting with a Probate Lawyer

An experienced probate lawyer can help you handle a deceased person's estate.This article provides guidance on how to prepare for your first meeting with a probate attorney.

If you are considering hiring a probate attorney, you are probably either:

  1. Named as a personal representative in someone's will
  2. A conscientious family member of someone who died without a will

Either way, an experienced probate lawyer can help you handle a deceased person's estate.

What Is Probate?

Probate has two meanings. It refers to ensuring a will is valid in a probate court. Probate law generally relates to estate administration or the general process of distributing a deceased person's estate.

In probate, the goal is to distribute property in a deceased's estate according to their will after satisfying financial obligations. If a will does not exist, intestacy rules apply. State laws of intestate succession control the distribution of assets in such cases. In all cases, the legal process involves:

  • Swearing in a personal representative
  • Calculating assets
  • Paying debts
  • Distributing the remaining property

In most cases, the probate process goes smoothly. However, sometimes complications arise. Heirs and creditors may decide they are entitled to a more significant cut, or someone may contest the will. Liquidating property to pay debts can also complicate matters. In these scenarios, getting legal advice from an experienced attorney can help.

What Is a Personal Representative?

If you are reading this article, you were likely named personal representative. A personal representative is an individual responsible for handling a deceased person's estate.

When appointed in a will, this person is sometimes known as an “executor." When appointed by a court, they are sometimes called an “administrator." Either way, the personal representative is sworn in by a probate court to distribute the estate according to law.

Personal representatives owe a fiduciary duty to the decedent's estate. A fiduciary duty requires the personal representative to handle the estate responsibly and efficiently. They must do so according to the directives in a decedent's will, if one exists, or according to governing law if one does not. A probate attorney can be a valued ally in carrying out this duty responsibly.

Information To Gather Before the Initial Meeting

To do their job well, attorneys rely heavily on the information provided by their clients. An experienced attorney is a master at asking the right questions. You can make the most of your time with the attorney by preparing for any meeting, whether it's a phone call or a meeting at the attorney's law office.

Therefore, gather as much information about the estate before your initial consultation as possible. Most law offices will provide an intake form to help you organize the relevant information. But even if the attorney does not offer such a form, consider the following:

  • Last will and testament: Bring the decedent's last will and testament if one exists. It should ideally be the original copy.
  • Death certificate and identifying information: Bring the decedent's death certificate. If the certificate is unavailable, bring an obituary with the date of death. Also, have their date of birth, last address, and social security number ready to provide to the attorney.
  • Heirs and beneficiaries: Individuals selected to inherit in a will are known as beneficiaries. Individuals who otherwise inherit according to laws of intestate succession are known as heirs. Bring the names and contact information for both. Start with spouses and children, and then work from there.
  • Personal representative: If a will names a personal representative and that person is not you, bring their contact information as well. This may be more applicable if you need help contesting a will. For more on challenging a will, see Reasons To Challenge a Will and Who Can Challenge a Will?
  • Assets and liabilities: Collecting and inventorying assets and liabilities is the list's most complex and consequential task. An accurate inventory and appraisal of assets and debts will ultimately determine what is available to distribute.
  • Any business interests: If there are any business interests held by the deceased person, this should also be accounted for. Remember safety deposit boxes, too.
  • Other documents: Bring legal documents that may impact estate distribution, including real property deeds, vehicle titles, and tax returns. Further, bring any other estate planning documents you locate. For example, if the deceased person created a living trust as part of their estate plan, bring the trust formation documents. If they left a power of attorney, bring that too.

Again, the inventory process will likely require the most effort from you, your attorney, and the law firm's paralegal. The inventory should include:

  • Real estate
  • Valuable personal property (e.g., vehicles, jewelry, and furniture)
  • Bank accounts
  • Credit card accounts
  • Life insurance policies without a named beneficiary
  • Investment accounts (e.g., money market and mutual funds) owned by the estate
  • Retirement accounts (e.g., pensions, annuities, and IRAs) owned by the estate

As you start collecting information for your initial consultation, Findlaw's Estate Planning Intake Questionnaire may be helpful.

Before Hiring a Probate Lawyer

Because probate is a narrow practice area, your probate attorney, or their firm, will likely have a more general practice as an estate planning attorney. Either way, your attorney should be someone you can trust and work with. Before hiring an attorney, consider asking the following:

  • Are they specialized in probate and/or estate planning?
  • Do they have experience litigating disputed probate cases?
  • How do they charge for their service? An hourly fee? If so, what is the hourly rate? Do they charge a flat fee? If so, how much is it? In a few states, attorneys can even charge a percentage of the estate value so long as it is reasonable.
  • How will expenses be paid? Beyond attorney's fees, probate cases often involve additional court costs and appraisal fees.
  • What is their availability to meet with clients?
  • How can probate costs be reduced?
  • What is a probate attorney's primary job?
  • How does the probate attorney work with other staff, including paralegals?
  • How do they coordinate duties with an estate's personal representative?
  • How are estate creditors and debts handled?

You should be able to communicate effectively with your attorney and trust them. The real work can begin once you have addressed your concerns and feel comfortable establishing an attorney-client relationship.

Next Step: Hiring a Probate Attorney

The probate process can feel overwhelming, especially when grieving the death of a loved one. An estate planning attorney with experience in probate can be your most important ally. Whether distributing an estate or litigating a contested will, a probate attorney can help.

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