Tools of the Trade

Top Ten Tips for Handling a Probate Estate
guest author: Sarah J. Barnes

  1. Identify the Client
    When someone passes away, it is very common for a number of relatives to want to help and be involved in the probate process. This can make it very challenging, as a paralegal, to know what you are allowed to say and to whom.  It is critically important that you establish immediately who your firm represents and that privileged information is not inadvertently released to a third party.
  1. Get Organized
    Probate estates require a good organized time table. Make sure you have a good check list in place for all of the documents needed for all filings, important dates are calendared and you have a clear time line in place for what is supposed to happen and when.
  1. Communicate with your Client
    As you are organizing and executing your estate, make sure your client is informed of the necessary deadlines and information needed well in advance. It is extremely common for probate clients to have difficulty locating information or completing and returning important forms, and you must stay on top of them and make sure these tasks are completed on time.
  1. Be Sensitive
    While it is of course important to maintain a timely schedule, recognize that there has been a death, and it was of someone with whom your client was most likely very close. Respect the fact that they may still be processing their grief. Be mindful of the client's emotional state when you are speaking to them or making requests of their time.
  1. Communicate with the Court
    If you are new to the practice of probate, or you are dealing with an issue that you have not encountered before, it is always best practice to contact the court in your jurisdiction and verify that any submissions or filing are being done correctly. The clerk will likely be very grateful that you called to ask rather than submitting something incorrectly, and in my experience they have always been extremely courteous and helpful when I contact them with a question.
  1. Get to Know Your Team
    It is important to remember that your attorney is most likely not the only professional working on your client's estate. In almost all cases there is at least one accountant, and often a financial planner, involved in helping close out a decedent's estate. It is a good idea to get to know everyone involved so that you have individuals you can turn to when you client calls with a tax question, or has concerns about the financial management of the estate.
  1. Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
    While many, many families complete the probate process with little to no acrimony involved, this does not always happen. It very often starts off being friendly, but it is extremely common to have an estate settlement fall apart because the family has begun fighting. As mentioned earlier, make sure you are only speaking to the client when discussing privileged information, keep yourself as organized as possible in the event any of the family members may get upset with the work that has been done on the estate and make sure you are completing your tasks as accurately as possible.
  1. Do Not Give Legal Advice
    When the client and other professionals involved in the probate process contact you seeking answers to questions when your attorney is not present, be exceptionally careful how you respond. If you are at all concerned that the answer you give may be construed as legal advice, meaning that the individual inquiring will be basing their actions on the response that you gave, make sure you advise them that they must wait to speak with your attorney and you are not allowed to give legal advice on the subject. As these are often  time sensitive situations this may be challenging, however, you be firm and clear with anyone you are working with that you do not give legal advice.
  1. Do Not be Afraid to Ask for Help
    Regardless of how experienced a probate paralegal you are, probate can be a very complicated and confusing process. Make sure that any time you are feeling even the least bit unsure about your work, ask your attorney for assistance. They will MUCH prefer that you take the time to work out your confusion or uncertainty with them than to make a potentially costly mistake by guessing.
  1. Educate Yourself
    The practice of probate, as with any field of law, is constantly evolving and changing. If you intend to stay in the field for any length of time, it is always a good idea to stay abreast of the latest developments in probate law and practice in your jurisdiction. Talk with your attorney to see what resources they recommend, or contact your local state bar to see what periodicals and publications are available that will enhance your knowledge and understanding of the practice of probate.


Sarah J. Barnes is an attorney with Zerbst & Kluck, SC, where she practices in the areas of estate planning, probate, elder law and guardianships. Her practice includes drafting powers of attorney, wills, revocable and irrevocable trusts and administration of estates. Ms. Barnes also serves as a court appointed guardian ad litem for children and individuals in guardianship matters. She earned her B.A. degree from Edgewood College and her J.D. degree from Marquette University Law School. Her professional memberships include State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane and Sauk County bar associations, Legal Association of Women, and the Madison Estate Planning Council. Ms. Barnes is admitted to practice in Wisconsin.

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