Q&A with Loraine: Navigating Probate

Question: Do I need to hire an attorney to go through probate?

Background: My 53 year old dad recently passed away unexpectedly – without a Will. He never remarried after my parents’ divorce in 2005 and I am his only child (20 years old). He owned two condos jointly – one with my grandmother and one with a friend. He also owns one car and has a couple of bank accounts which together total less than $100,000. I am his sole beneficiary and we all live in Georgia.

Loraine’s Answer: No one in an online advice forum will be able to tell you whether you will absolutely have to open your father’s estate through a probate court proceeding (which would include a Petition for Letters of Administration). Note: Since your father had no Will, technically you would not be offering anything for probate- you would be simply going to the probate court to open his estate for administration. However, you should definitely see an attorney for a probate consultation.

The reason why you can’t get the kind of answer you’re looking for in an online advice forum is because there are too many facts involved in any given estate for questions about the estate to be adequately addressed in a forum that is designed only to provide answers about general legal concepts. Your post does not address nearly enough of the necessary factors for me to give you a definitive recommendation here. All that said, you MAY need to open your father’s estate for administration, if he has any interest in real estate or in a financial account that became part of his probate estate and did not pass automatically to a surviving joint owner (not all forms of joint ownership transfer automatically) or designated beneficiary. In other words, whether or not his estate needs to be administered or otherwise dealt with in a probate court depends on exactly how he owned the various assets you describe.

If you are the sole heir, which it sounds like you might be (if your father was not married and you are the only child he ever had or adopted), then it may be a fairly simple process to open and administer the estate, and there are steps you can take during the process of getting the estate open that will save you time and money in the long run. I very strongly recommend that you hire an experienced probate attorney for a consultation. The attorney can help you review the actual facts of the situation and determine what you should do. Legally, you do not have to hire an attorney. However, getting the help of an experienced attorney before trying to deal with an estate on your own can be a time- and money-saver. If fees and costs are a concern, please note: You may be able to do a lot of the legwork on your own, with your attorney providing guidance and answering questions for you, instead of having the attorney or the attorney’s staff perform all or most of the needed tasks.

Key Estate Planning Takeaway: While it is true that attorneys charge by the hour, consulting with one regarding an estate does not mean you have to have the attorney do all of the needed work. Hiring an experienced probate attorney to advise you on a prudent course of action and help you do as much as you can yourself, if you want to, is still a better idea than trying to figure out how to properly handle an estate on your own.

This “Q&A with Loraine” blog series features answers from Morgan + DiSalvo Partner Loraine DiSalvo to questions posted on www.avvo.com. A key takeaway from each exchange highlights an important facet of estate planning.

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