Most of us who are named as an executor probably know very little about the specifics of the job or what will need to be completed. Fortunately, in most cases, we don’t have to go it alone.
Depending on the complexity of the estate and the resources that are available to you, you’ll likely want to use estate funds to hire an attorney who specializes in estate/probate work to help you manage your executor duties.
At Executor.org, we often receive questions about hiring an estate attorney. Some executors want to know if it’s really needed and others just want to know tips for finding the right attorney. Here’s our take on these common questions:
Do I need an estate attorney?
Unless you are experienced as an estate executor, you probably should hire an estate attorney (also called a probate attorney). Even the simplest will — for example, one where a spouse gives everything to the surviving spouse — will likely have to be filed with the probate court. And given that the probate court process is unfamiliar to most of us, having someone familiar with it can save you from wasting time, being frustrated and making costly mistakes.
What type of estate attorney should I hire?
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to selecting an attorney. Here are things you’ll want to consider:
- Where is the attorney? Select one in the county or state where the deceased resided. Laws vary from state to state, so you want to have an attorney who knows the specifics in the state where the deceased legally resided.
- How complicated is the will? Some people have simple wills, giving all their assets to a small number of beneficiaries. But other wills contain complex distributions and may even reference trusts or other detailed arrangements. The more complicated the will, the more you need to consider getting an attorney who is an expert in the area. A general attorney who knows their way around the probate court may be good for a simple will. But if the will is complicated, you want to select an estate attorney or law firm with experience with complex wills and more difficult distributions.
- How complex are the assets? If assets are high in value, held within incorporated entities, or in complicated trusts, you want to select an estate attorney or law firm with experience in these areas.
Tips for Hiring Your Estate Attorney
- Feel free to interview a few attorneys for the job. Personality matters. As an executor, you’ll be working closely with the attorney, so make sure they are someone you trust and respect. Remember that you are the “customer” (or client) in this process.
- Ask about the fees. How will the estate attorney be compensated? Will the estate be charged by the hour or is there a flat fee based on the will and size of the estate?
- Ask about the process. Will you work with the person you are talking to or a team of people? In most law offices, as an estate settlement client, you’ll work closely with a paralegal as well as administrative staff. Ask if you can meet the team to make sure you’re comfortable with them, as well.
You may also want to let the attorney know if you are using tools like ours at Executor.org.
Good lawyers appreciate informed clients and by you understanding the process. Plus, you may be able to save the estate money in legal and other fees because you’ll be more efficient with your professional team.
In general, most of us will need the help of an estate attorney for at least part of our work as an executor. While it’s an expense that will take away from the estate’s assets, that’s no reason to not hire legal help. In the long run, having an attorney can actually save money because they’ll be able to prevent you from making costly errors and getting in legal trouble.
If you’d like to learn more about your role as executor, check out our free executor checklist at Executor.org. It covers everything you’ll need to know to settle an estate as quickly and easily as possible — and is 100% customized to your specific situation!
Have a question about executorship? Get an answer by sending an email to [email protected].
Patrick O’Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.