This morning I met with a client whose father died two years ago but whose estate has not even been started. The client took his father's Will to a lawyer who doesn't practice Wills and Estates law - and told the client so - but the client wanted this lawyer to do the work because it was someone he knew personally. Why the lawyer agreed, I can't imagine.
The result is that two years later, the Will has not even been probated. The lawyer found a form that he sent to the client and asked him to fill in. The client didn't know how to fill it in properly and the lawyer was no help. Everything ground to a halt and there it stayed until today. There are four pieces of real estate, two of which generate rental income, still in the father's name. The estate is at least two tax returns behind schedule.
If your experience with an estate is anything like this, you should know that this isn't the way it's supposed to be. This is not at all how things go when you hire a lawyer with knowledge and expertise in estates. If that client had chosen a different lawyer, this all would have been over with and out of his hair a year ago or more. The lawyer should take control of the file, keep it moving and advise the client at every step of the transaction.
I always feel terrible for people when I hear stories like this. Don't put yourself in this position! Whether you need Will planning for yourself or probate of the Will of someone you cared about, hire someone with experience. If you don't know who to hire, ask your friends, family and co-workers for the name of an estate planning lawyer they have used. Don't hire someone who sets up companies or defends criminals or does divorces. Those are completely different law specialties that you may need at another time but you don't need for estate planning. If nobody you know can recommend someone, ask your banker or your accountant.
Tip: If you call a firm or lawyer you don't know, be smart about what questions you ask. Don't say "do you do Wills?" because even a lawyer who does only one Will a year will answer in the affirmative. Instead, ask "what percentage of your practice is Wills and Estates?" Look for someone who does a lot of work in this area of law.
I know there are some exceptions to this rule. I have met some general practitioner lawyers, particularly in smaller towns, who do several kinds of legal work and are also extremely good at Wills and Estates law. I've also met some who are terrible at it. I wish it were easier for the clients to know who to hire.