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How to Choose a Florida Probate Lawyer

Most attorneys who handle Florida probate or estate matters would probably tell you to simply find a lawyer with 20 + years’ experience, who is highly rated, with confidence, and great experience, who limits their practice to the area of the law which you need help with. That’s probably the short version of how to choose a Florida probate lawyer. But consider…..

Like many other service providers, many lawyers today seem to limit their services. I remember my dad saying years ago that today was a day of specialization. Many attorneys limit their practice to certain areas of the law. Probate lawyers in Florida are no exception. Some write wills and trusts and provide estate planning services. Others handle only estate planning for the more high end, ultra-wealthy clients with estates in excess of $5 Million. These probate lawyers are often described as tax attorneys, because of the need for them to be well versed in US estate tax law, US gift tax, and the generation-skipping transfer tax, which can tax gifts or inheritances given to certain heirs and descendants. Of course, “traditional” probate attorneys opened up probates and filed wills, and helped gather the assets of someone who passed away. Paying off estate creditors, and then distributing those assets to estate beneficiaries, are an important part of a probate lawyer’s role. But, in today’s Florida, does hiring a “probate lawyer” make sense and do you know what you are getting? Try asking yourself “What do I need?”

In Florida, it seems like a lot of attorneys say they are “probate lawyers.” Probate attorneys are often thought of as those who help administer estates and who open up probate proceedings in Florida probate courts. They are guided by the Florida Probate Rules and the Florida Probate Code. But, do they try cases? Do they actually set inheritance disputes and probate disputes for trial? Well, a lot of probate lawyers in Florida may say that they can handle your estate dispute, but do they actually handle trials? Ask them the last time that they had a full blown, multi-day trial in probate court over, say, a will contest, or a challenge to a codicil or a trust amendment based on dementia or Alzheimers. Ask your “probate lawyer” how often they file a Notice of Trial and actually set the probate matter or civil lawsuit for an inheritance trial.

If litigation arises regarding a trust document, or a will or codicil, or a challenge to a will, you may wish to consider that you need a probate litigation law firm. Having a trial attorney, whose guide books are the Florida Evidence Code and the Rules of Civil Procedure, with a strong, experienced knowledge of Florida probate law, may be just what you need. After all, if you have a dispute, you can only resolve or end the dispute in one of three ways. You are either going to settle it, go to court and have a trial, or have a probate appeal. Does your probate attorney know how to question witnesses at a probate trial? Does your estate planning attorney know how to get the medical records into evidence over a hearsay objection from your opponent? Estate lawsuits are Dodge City, high noon, showdowns with a lot on the line. Often, your inheritance, or an estate, or Florida trust, is in your probate lawyer’s hands. Siblings and adult step-children, and step-parents, and in-laws fighting over mom and dad’s revocable trust, bank accounts, Florida Homestead, real estate and valuable art and family businesses. Do you really want a probate lawyer who writes wills handling your probate lawsuit? Or do you want a probate trial attorney who handles trials throughout Florida in charge of your litigation strategy?

“Probate lawyers” is a broad term and you should know what you are getting when you hire one. What do you need?

  1. someone to write your estate plan?
  2. someone to help with a loved one’s property, who just passed away?
  3. someone to resolve a simple dispute between your sibling, or perhaps mom or dad’s 2nd or 3rd spouse, over your parent’s revocable trust?
  4. someone to actually defend or file a will contest or challenge to the probate of a will based on undue influence and fraud?

Consider thinking about what you really need, or want, from your lawyer. Then ask him or her how much of their practice is limited to those services or that area of law. Today, most clients don’t want a jack of all trades: they want a lawyer who limits their practice, their time, to the area of the law which that client needs help with right now.

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