How do you find a good probate attorney?
May 12, 2023 9:49 AM   Subscribe

My step-sister's mother (who I did not know personally) has just passed away and I'm helping out with some of the process. The deceased person owned a house (which they were informally renting out) but probably did not leave a will, and we think we will need to talk to a probate attorney. How do you find a good probate attorney in Wisconsin?

This happened in Madison, Wisconsin and neither of us live nearby but are flying up Sunday to figure things out. My step-sister is the only heir so that part should be simple, but neither of us know anything about property law and it sounds like that part will be confusing. Does anyone have advice for how to find and vet a probate attorney, are there questions we should ask them to make sure they will do a good job? How does paying a probate/estate attorney work, do you need to pay up front or does it come out of the estate later?

If anyone has knowledge about how to handle inheritance without a will I would appreciate any good online resources I can pass on to her. And if someone happens to have a referral for a probate attorney (or similar professional) near Madison, WI that could also be helpful. Thanks!
posted by JZig to Law & Government (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"The Executor's Guide" from Nolo is often recommended and has been helpful for me. (I have a Wisconsin friend who can probably recommend an attorney if you can't find someone more directly.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:20 AM on May 12

Best answer: My condolences to your step-sister, and kudos to you for stepping up and being helpful at this difficult time.

I've almost always found it helpful to turn to a local bar association when I need to find an attorney in a particular jurisdiction who practices in a particular area. Bar associations are often organized on a county or city level, with an umbrella state bar association over those more local offices. In this case, you might consider using the "Find a Lawyer" feature on the Dane County Bar Association web page and search for attorneys with experience in the field of estate planning: here is the link. This isn't an estate planning situation, but, rather, an estate administration situation; many attorneys work in both areas, though. If this turns up a lot of results, consider contacting the Dane County Bar Association directly and saying that you're in the market for an attorney who can assist with the administration of the estate of a decedent who likely died intestate. They should be able to guide you.

Attorneys who practice in the field of estate administration commonly are paid via a fee, often set/capped by statute, of a percentage of the assets within the estate. This can be supplemented by hourly billing in complex situations. You can and should ask how a prospective attorney is to be paid, and they should answer you clearly.

If you're ever in the market for the "best of the best" when it comes to attorneys who practice in the area of estate planning and in the closely related area of estate administration (which may be overkill for this situation), you may want to look up the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, also known as ACTEC. ACTEC fellows are voted on by their peers, so they can't "buy" their way into membership. Most ACTEC fellows are partners at large law firms and charge very expensive hourly rates, especially for estate planning. They are subject to the same statutory constraints as any other attorney when it comes to being paid for estate administration work, though. I've therefore had occasion in the past to ask ACTEC fellows for recommendations for local attorneys who specialize in estate administration, which often isn't a focus of the ACTEC fellows' practices because it is less profitable for them than the estate planning work due to those caps, and I've gotten some good recommendations in different jurisdictions.
posted by cheapskatebay at 10:23 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is not my practice area, but I am a member of the Dane County Bar and will message you separately with referrals. cheapskatebay gave you some fantastic advice for picking a lawyer.
posted by notjustthefish at 11:44 AM on May 12

"The Executor's Guide" from Nolo is often recommended and has been helpful for me

I also found this to be a useful source, supplemented with lots of googling.

I found a probate attorney by asking a lawyer I'd had some contact with (but with a totally different specialization) for a recommendation. It was a very straightforward process -- I had an intake chat with the actual attorney and from then on everything was handled by their staff. They gave me a guestimate quote at the start and they came in within $100 of the estimate. I'm sure they deal with complex issues but cases like mine were clearly very formulaic and standardized. Everything was by phone and email and I never actually met them in person.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:22 PM on May 12

Call the probate court in the county in which you will be probating the estate and ask for referrals. You know they will at least be competent and the Court knows which attorneys are problematic. I am an attorney and this is what I would do.
posted by Saucywench at 12:52 PM on May 12

Response by poster: Thank you all for the good information, I will pass this on to my sister.
posted by JZig at 4:34 PM on May 12

I sent you a memail
posted by rockindata at 6:42 PM on May 12

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