Whether you need a probate lawyer to help with the estate of a deceased loved one, assist with a guardianship, or represent you in an Ohio probate dispute, you should make sure the attorney who represents you can meet your needs. But how do you choose a probate attorney?
You may not have the luxury of weeks or months to research and interview different attorneys, although you should certainly do as much research as you are able. Here are five questions to help you get to the bottom of things in the limited time you may have.
New attorneys may be very smart, diligent and responsive—all good traits. If you interview a newer attorney and are confident in their abilities, by all means consider retaining them. But remember that there is also no substitute for experience. Experienced Ohio probate attorneys are familiar with the practices of the local probate courts, so they can often expedite processes that would take longer for less experienced attorneys. Even if their hourly rate is higher than that of a new attorney, their experience can mean that the estate's overall legal bill is lower.
Length of practice is only one aspect of experience. An attorney may have been handling probate cases for over thirty years, but if they handle only a few probate cases per year, they may not have enough of the relevant experience you need. In addition to asking the length of practice, ask about what percentage of the attorney's cases are probate-related. The higher the percentage, the more likely the attorney is dedicated to probate law and tuned into new legal developments and aspects of the law that could affect your case.
Depending on the case, some attorneys may charge an hourly rate, others a flat fee, and some may have still different billing arrangements. In a decedent's estate, legal fees are paid by the estate, not the personal representative. Even so, you will want to make sure you understand the billing and that you feel it's fair. On a related note, you will want to ask if all work is done by the attorney or if some is done by paralegals at a lower rate. Not all probate work requires an attorney's involvement, so the support of a skilled paralegal is a good way to save on legal fees without sacrificing quality.
Using a probate attorney definitely simplifies the process of administering an Ohio estate, but there are still some tasks that the personal representative can handle if he or she wishes. Taking care of those tasks you're able to can help to keep probate costs low. Be certain you're clear on the division of labor, and that you are comfortable with it.
For instance, if you are uncomfortable with the prospect of preparing and filing estate tax returns, make sure your attorney is willing and equipped to take on that task. Likewise, if you are administering an estate and fear there may be a dispute, make sure any attorney you retain handles probate litigation.
A "no" to this question isn't necessarily a deal-breaker; of the thousands of attorneys who practice Ohio probate law, fewer than two hundred have a certification from the OSBA in the area of estate planning, trust, and probate law. Lack of certification does not mean that a lawyer isn't competent in this area.
If you receive a "yes" in response to this question, though, you can be certain that you have found an attorney who has engaged in at least 520 hours per year in this practice area for each of the five calendar years before applying for certification, and at least 5000 lifetime years of practice in this area.
In addition, Ohio attorneys certified by the OSBA in estate planning, trust, and probate law must have presented at least seven references, passed a stringent examination, and committed to a high level of continuing education in this area. In other words, those attorneys who achieve certification have demonstrated a great deal of commitment, experience, and skill in estate planning, trust, and probate law.
These five questions should help you identify a skilled Ohio probate attorney who can meet your needs. But remember: even if the answers to all of these questions are "correct," listen to your gut and as yourself some questions, too. Did you feel more comfortable and informed after speaking to the attorney? Do you trust him or her? Do you feel like the attorney was respectful and responsive to you? Remember, you will be working with this attorney through a stressful time. You want to work with someone who not only knows what they're doing, but helps you to feel confident as well.