Intake Questionnaire: Initial Meeting with a Probate Lawyer
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 one of two options:
- Named as a personal representative in someone's will
- 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. Narrowly, it refers to the process of making sure a will is valid in a probate court. More broadly, it refers to estate administration or the general process of distributing a deceased person's estate.
In probate, the goal is to distribute a deceased person's property according to their will after paying off legitimate debts. If a will does not exist, the property is distributed according to state laws of intestate succession. In all cases, the process involves swearing in a personal representative, calculating assets, paying debts, and distributing the remaining property.
In most cases, the probate process goes smoothly. However, sometimes complications arise when a will is contested, heirs and creditors decide they are entitled to a larger cut, or property needs to be liquidated to cover the debt. In these scenarios, a probate attorney can help.
What Is a Personal Representative?
If you are reading this article, chances are you have been selected as a 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 known as an “administrator." Either way, the personal representative is sworn in by a probate court to distribute the estate according to law.
Importantly, personal representatives are constrained by a fiduciary duty to the decedent's estate. This means they are obligated to handle the estate responsibly and efficiently. They must do so according to the decedent's will if one exists or according to governing law if one does not. A probate attorney can be an important 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. Therefore, before your initial consultation, gather as much information about the estate as possible. 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 not available, bring an obituary with the date of death. Also, bring their date of birth, last address, and social security number.
- 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 this, see Reasons to Challenge a Will and Who Can Challenge a Will?
- Assets and Liabilities. This is simultaneously the most difficult and consequential item on this list. Though the identity of heirs and beneficiaries is essential, an accurate inventory and appraisal of assets and debts will ultimately determine what is available to distribute. The inventory should include real estate and valuable personal property (e.g., vehicles, jewelry, and furniture). It should also include bank accounts, credit card accounts, investment accounts (e.g., money market and mutual funds), and retirement accounts (e.g., pensions, annuities, and IRAs).
- Any business interests held by the deceased person should also be accounted for. Don't forget about safe deposit boxes.
- Other Documents. Bring any other documents that may impact estate distribution. This includes real property deeds, vehicle titles, and tax returns. Further, 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.
The law firm you visit will likely have you fill out its own probate intake form. However, as you start collecting information for your initial consultation, you may find it helpful to print out Findlaw's Estate Planning Intake Questionnaire.
Before Hiring a Probate Lawyer
Because probate is a very narrow practice area, chances are your probate attorney will also 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 or a flat fee? 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 regular availability to meet with clients?
- How can probate costs be reduced?
- What is a probate attorney's primary job?
- How do they coordinate duties with an estate's personal representative?
- How are estate creditors and debts handled?
Again, your attorney should be someone you can trust and work with. Once you have addressed your concerns and feel comfortable establishing an attorney-client relationship, the real work can begin.
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.
Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?
- Complex probate situations usually require a lawyer
- A lawyer will take these matters seriously and enforce protections
- Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions
- Many attorneys offer free consultations