Luckily, most people don’t need to hire a lawyer very many times in their lives. And even if you’ve hired a lawyer for a business matter, real estate transaction, or a divorce, working with a lawyer on a probate matter 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 need to ask a lot of questions. To keep costs down, you can take on some of the routine work yourself.
WHO DOES WHAT? 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 a lawyer. So if you’re paying your lawyer hourly, 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: (1) order death certificates, (2) get appraisals of valuable property, and (3) file the deceased person’s final income tax return.
Many lawyers are more flexible than they used to be about offering what’s called "limited representation" or "unbundled legal 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 local 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.
IMPORTANT DATES. It’s a good idea to ask the lawyer for a list of deadlines—for example, when is the cutoff for creditors to submit claims, and when will the final probate hearing be held, if there needs to be one? This will be helpful both if there are things you need to do, and if creditors or beneficiaries contact you with questions.
DEALING WITH BENEFICIARIES AND CREDITORS. 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 stressing), you might ask the lawyer to review your communications before you send them, to make sure you’ve got everything right.
GETTING LEGAL ADVICE AS YOU GO ALONG. Check in with your lawyer regularly 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.
We have been handling probate cases for over 22 years. If we can be of service to you, your family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers, give us a call at 253.858.5434 to set up an appointment today. We represent clients throughout Washington and Idaho and are available to meet in person, by phone, or via Skype or FaceTime.