How to Choose a Probate Attorney
If a loved one recently passed away, having named you personal representative (executor) of his or her estate, your first task should be to choose a probate attorney to guide you through the Ohio probate process. You may also be looking for a probate attorney if the deceased's will did not name an executor, if the named executor is deceased or otherwise unavailable, or if you believe the current executor is not carrying out his or her duties.
Knowing you need a probate attorney is one thing; selecting and retaining one is another. There may be a sense of urgency, but it's worth taking the time to be sure that your probate attorney has the knowledge of Ohio probate law and the experience in local probate courts to efficiently and effectively guide you through the probate process.
Finding an Experienced Ohio Probate Attorney
This article assumes that you are the personal representative of the deceased person's (decedent's) estate, but these guiding principles are relevant no matter what your reason for seeking a probate attorney.
First and foremost, probate work should be a significant part of the attorney's practice, not just something they do to help out clients in their main practice areas. The complexity of probate work is such that an attorney who doesn't practice regularly in this area could overlook important, and potentially costly, details.
The more complicated the estate, the more important it is to find an attorney who practices regularly in the Ohio probate courts. An estate may need a highly-skilled probate attorney for a number of reasons, just a few of which include:
- Significant or complex assets
- Estate tax issues
- Real property in multiple states
- Potential will contests or other disputes among heirs or beneficiaries
Think about the likely needs of your particular probate matter when selecting an attorney. If you are handling an estate that is large enough to raise concerns about federal estate tax, it's helpful to have an attorney who has significant background in tax matters. If you fear that a dispute among heirs may erupt, it's important to have an attorney with skill in resolving disputes, who is experienced in probate litigation should that arise.
One way to be certain you have a skilled probate lawyer is to retain an attorney who is an Ohio State Bar Certified Specialist in Estate, Trust, and Probate Law. Of the thousands of attorneys in Ohio, fewer than two hundred have met the stringent criteria for this certification.
Questions to Ask a Probate Attorney
You should interview a few probate attorneys before retaining one. If the attorney who did the decedent's estate planning also handles probate estates, he or she should be familiar with the estate and may be a good choice.
Regardless of which attorneys you interview, there are a few questions you should always ask, in addition to the primary questions of how long they've been practicing probate law in Ohio and how much of their practice is probating estates.
Since the attorney is paid from estate funds, ask what he or she does to promote efficient practice. A good answer is that paralegals or associates handle the routine aspects of probate cases. This allows work to be done at a lower cost without sacrificing quality, and frees the attorney's attention for the more complex aspects of each case.
In addition, ask what work you will be performing in the probate process. A good attorney will empower and advise you in your duties without burdening you with tasks you're not equipped to handle. For many personal representatives, the filing of tax returns is a dreaded duty, so ask if that is something the probate attorney's office will take care of.
Last but not least, be sure you retain an ethical attorney. The Supreme Court of Ohio website allows you to search for an attorney by name or registration number, and then to see if there is a discipline record on file. You can also ask a prospective attorney directly if he or she has ever been disciplined, and why. A good attorney will not be offended, and will readily answer your questions.