Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 17, 2019

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No state requires you to use a lawyer to probate an estate, but probate can be complicated, and you can be personally liable if you do something wrong. One minor omission, one failure to send a copy of the petition, or a missed deadline can cause everything to come to a grinding halt. Among other problems, this kind of mistake is likely to make you unpopular with the beneficiaries.

If the estate you are working with is simple and you have clear instructions and copies of the forms you need, you may be able to go through the probate process without getting legal advice, but if complications arise you will need legal help of some kind.

For example, if any of the following circumstances come to light, it is recommended that you seek legal counsel:

  • If there is a complicated tax situation, such as a dispute over past taxes;
  • Ambiguities in the wording of the will;
  • Disputed claims, such as a spouse who says property left to someone else is community property;
  • Problems with disputed debts or unfinished contracts, such as the sale of a business that wasn’t completed;
  • A significant amount of property left to a minor who needs to have a guardian appointed; or
  • If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to pay all the debts.

Keep in mind that you have several options for hiring a probate lawyer. You don’t necessarily have to turn the whole process over to an attorney. It may be enough to consult, get advice, or have an attorney review documents you have prepared. If you are unsure about the probate procedure or about the estate, you need to get legal advice, and you may decide to just let the lawyer do it.