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What questions should you ask a probate lawyer?

One of the things that continues to surprise me is how few questions people ask at consultations regarding family or estate planning matters. You would assume that because a person has come into the Law Office of Bryan Fagan for a free of charge consultation they would do so with questions period, however, I find that people, more often than not, have a story to tell but have few questions regarding follow-ups on the story or about the possibilities of a legal case ahead. While the facts and circumstances of your particular situation are important I would argue that having questions about how those facts and circumstances relating to the real world of the law is even more important. 

Let's assume that you are a person who has questions about by their drafting a will, creating trust, or learning how to proceed after the death of a loved one. It would be understandable to be overwhelmed with concern over your situation and your families if you find yourself in any of these scenarios. Coming to see an attorney who is experienced in probate in estate planning matters is also a wise decision. However, deciding to come to talk to an attorney without first preparing yourself for the meeting is not an especially strong starting point. 

Bear in mind that in a consultation situation you are the one who should be working to accumulate information. Should you decide to hire an attorney at that stage the lawyer will need to begin to accumulate information from you. However, the specific facts and circumstances of your situation are not as important as you have questions ready to go about learning the law and the basics of a probate or estate planning case. This is especially true if you have received information from other people that are not exactly accurate regarding either of these kinds of situations. The attorney that you meet with will not only need to help convey information to you that is impactful but will also need to dispel rumors and myths that other people may have told you in the past. 

This is not something that is limited to the world of the law. I have read news articles and seen reports about how little time we spend with doctors having them answer our questions. This may be impacted somewhat by the frequency with which we consider ourselves to be able to research basic medical information on the Internet. However, that does not mean that when you are in a situation where your doctor is sitting right in front of you that you should not ask him or her questions about any health conditions you may be interested in. While I will not speculate why people, in general, do not ask questions at the doctor there certainly seems to be a reality in place that asking questions is not a strong suit that most of us have. 

The other times that I see this as being a common occurrence, as far as the hesitancy to ask questions, is regarding job interviews. Being able to learn about a new job and take an interest in the new position is almost as critical as your background and skills. Failing to come into a job interview with some specific questions that you would like answered does not show that you have all the answers. Rather, it shows that you may lack a sort of curiosity and attention to detail which may not appeal to some employers. You are not wasting an employer's time by asking questions in the same way that you are not wasting the attorneys' time by not asking questions in a free-of-charge consultation. 

With all that said I think that it is wise to have questions prepared to ask an estate planning or probate attorney before you ever step into a meeting room. The reality is that most of us are not that great at coming up with questions and thoughts on the fly. As a result, if you have questions prepared you will likely have a better jumping-off point not only in asking questions and getting information but in developing questions based on what the attorney says in the consultation itself. But that said, here is what I think some good questions are for you to begin asking at any probate or estate planning attorney's consultation. 

How long have you been practicing probate and estate planning law?

There is nothing wrong with hiring a young attorney, fresh out of school to represent you in a legal matter. Just because an attorney is younger does not mean that he or she will not be professional, intelligent, or competent. We all had to get our start, professionally speaking, somewhere. I do not want to contribute to any opinion that may cause you to rule out hiring a young lawyer. 

However, there is no substitute for experience. Experience is important when you hire an attorney because you will be investing in that attorney based on their experience, knowledge, and ability to help you achieve the goals that you have. An attorney who is experienced in handling matters related to probate and estate planning will help you to navigate the probate courts. This is important because it is easy to make mistakes in procedural matters with a court if you are unfamiliar with their practices. 

One of the questions related to asking an attorney how long he or he has been practicing in this area of the law is how to determine if a more experienced attorney is worth the extra money that he or she is likely to charge you. To me, this is like assessing whether any service is worth paying more money for than a less expensive competitor. For instance, if you want a hamburger then you may be willing to pay a little more for a better burger if the better burger only costs a dollar or two more. For that level of money, the increased cost may be worth it. 

On the other hand, you may not want to pay extra ten thousand dollars to buy a “nicer” car with all the bells and whistles. If all you need to do is get from Point A to Point B then a fancier car will not get you there any easier than a basic, functional vehicle. Due to the costs of paying for a more expensive vehicle compared to a less expensive one, you may not feel that paying more money for something that essentially does the same things for you may not be worth it. 

Paying for an attorney is different than either of the above examples I just provided you with. An attorney is not a product like a hamburger or a vehicle. An attorney is more like an investment where you pay money now in hopes of getting a return on that investment in the future. Specifically, the benefit of hiring an attorney is that you will pay some money in attorney fees at the present day to be able to gain something larger than those fees in the future. 

That could mean that the attorney helps you to save money in the probate and estate planning process. Or, that could mean that in having to challenge the will or to proceed as an heir after a loved one’s passing, the attorney could help you receive a financial gain where you otherwise might not have been able to. Whatever circumstance you find yourself in I would not look at the immediate costs of hiring an experienced attorney versus an inexperienced attorney based only on the attorney's fees that will be required. There are many more considerations for you to think about and you can only do so after asking questions and taking into consideration your circumstances. 

What sort of fees do you charge for your services?

In light of the discussion that we just had about paying for an attorney to represent you, is a twin discussion about how much an attorney will charge to work for you and your family. There is a general understanding and view towards attorneys that they charge a lot of money to hire them I know that this is a gross overgeneralization but I think it is safe to say most people would agree that this is the view on attorneys and how much they charge.

The truth of the situation is that different attorneys charge different rates depending on the area of the law that they are practicing in. Family law attorneys charge differently than personal injury attorneys do. A corporate attorney charges clients differently than probate or estate planning attorney. What you need to do is to perform some basic research to learn how an attorney bills and charges the client. When you have this information at hand you can better proceed into actually hiring a lawyer to represent you. 

We are all familiar with the phrase sticker shock. Sticker shock is when you finally get to see the price of a product or service that you have been considering purchasing only to find just how expensive that product or service is. Even if the cost is reasonable compared to similar products and services the initial shock in surprise as to the cost can be enough to dissuade you from making a purchase that you otherwise would have. This can be an OK thing if it was a product or service that you didn't need or could find a substitute for at a less expensive price. 

However, when it comes to hiring an attorney you may need to hire an attorney sooner rather than the later period as a result, being put off by what you view as an unnecessarily high sum of money to pay for a lawyer can harm you in the short and long runs. For that reason, you should learn about how much attorneys typically charge for the service that you need and then interview multiple attorneys to gauge how much a competitor charges versus any other attorney. Also, you can take this information and apply it to your budget to determine how you will go about paying for a lawyer. 

When it comes to the attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan we are very upfront with our clients and potential clients about how much we charge for services. The reality is that no attorney can predict exactly how much your case will cost before the case has even begun. However, what an attorney can do is walk you through the typical stages of a case and discuss how a case may become more or less expensive over time. From there you can make a decision for yourself about how to hire an attorney and what is an appropriate route to take as far as preparing yourself for a probate or estate planning matter. 

What emphasis does your practice place on estate planning or probate law? 

Many attorneys will tell you that they are happy to take your estate planning or probate-related case. Unlike in the world of medicine, attorneys do not graduate from law school with focuses in particular areas. By graduating from law school and passing the bar exam an attorney is qualified and licensed to practice the law of any sort in the state where he or she is licensed. This gives the attorney many options to pursue as far as what area of the law or areas of the law he or she would like to practice in. 

What it does do is allow attorneys to practice multiple areas at the same time. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For small towns and rural areas where there are not many attorneys, one lawyer can satisfy the legal needs of an entire population by diversifying their practice. The lawyer's competency is very, very important to this discussion but also as the discussion surrounding an attorney being able to accumulate the necessary experience to provide the best possible care for a client possible.

If I were you and was considering hiring an experienced attorney to represent you in probate or estate planning matter I would ask the question of whether or not the attorney practice is focused on the areas of estate planning and probate. The reason why I would want to ask this question is that an attorney who practices exclusively in the estate planning of probate has more of an opportunity to be able to accumulate experience in real-life know-how on how to handle various issues. 

And this is not to say that an attorney who practices in multiple areas of the law cannot offer you competent and qualified experience when it comes to practicing. However, I like to know that the attorney that I'm hiring focuses their practice and their professional work on helping people in my position and will not be distracted by matters unrelated to what I am trying to have done. 

What help will the attorney provide in handling matters related to a loved one’s estate after their passing? 

Probate attorneys exist to simplify and streamline the process of administrating the estate of your loved one who has passed away. However, as a personal representative or executor of your loved one's estate, there are certain tasks and roles that you can fill while still having an attorney to consult with on big picture issues. It is up to you how to proceed in how much personal attention you want to be able to pay 2 matters related to a loved one's estate. The time you have to commit to this endeavor as well as your capacity for administrative and legal work will all inform this decision further period

Typically speaking, the more of a direct role you play in helping complete tasks and fill roles within the case will determine how expensive your case becomes. The costs of probate can be determined by contacting a probate court. However, the costs of having an attorney manage matters related to the probating of an estate are more up in the air. Generally speaking, the more an attorney spans as far as time on a case the more he or she will charge you. 

I would speak to the attorney and ask questions about how you will divide up the test between you as the executor in your attorney as the representative. Sometimes filing documents in court and tax-related matters are better handled by professionals especially if you are not familiar with the process of CS involved. If your attorney that you are meeting with does not express a desire or competency to handle matters like this then you may want to look elsewhere for representation. Also, if you expect there to be necessary litigation then you should hire an attorney who has practiced contentious probate litigation before. 

Questions about the material contained in today's blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed estate planning and probate attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of probate and estate planning law. 


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