How to probate a will without an attorney
This question is at the heart of our service, put another way: Can I probate a will myself online?
The simple answer is yes, the vast majority of probate cases an attorney is not required. Anyone can interact with the court system, you do not need a lawyer to do so. There may be times where a lawyer is necessary.
To answer the question, “Do I need an attorney to probate a will?” thoroughly let's go over the general steps of the probate process and discuss when an attorney is necessary. Note that even if an attorney is needed, you can hire them for very specific issues and do not need them for the entire process.
The Probate Process
1) Petition the court to be the estate representative
The court will require the petitioner (person asking the court to appoint an official representative) to fill out specific forms. These forms can (with the help of EZ-Probate) be filled out by you. It will be the basic Who, What, When, Where etc. types of questions.
What you will need: A valid will, a copy of a will, or know for sure there is no will.
When would you need an attorney: In this part (filling out the court form) there probably is no need unless you don’t understand what the will is instructing the executor to do.
2) Notify heirs and creditors
The court will provide you forms to fill out to notify heirs (listed in a will, or if no will state law dictates who the heirs are). Additionally the representative is also responsible to find out what debts the deceased had and devise a plan to pay those debts. Remember, only assets that pass through probate are liable to pay debts. Learn which assets pass through probate here.
What you will need: a clear understanding of who the heirs are (will or state succession laws), and a reasonable attempt to uncover debts.
When would you need an attorney: If you don’t understand the will or need help determining who the heirs are. Note that all states post the “succession laws” and you can google them by searching: (state) succession law, or (state) intestate succession.
3) Change legal ownership of assets
This may be the most straightforward part. With the court appointment, you will now be able to change assets owned by deceased to the “estate of…”
What you will need: Court appointment and knowledge of what the deceased owned.
When you would need an attorney: There may be assets that have complicated ownership, businesses, royalties, mineral rights etc.. If you are unsure how to transfer ownership, then an attorney is needed. For most common assets (bank accounts, investments, property) you will be able to do it yourself.
4) Pay Funeral Expenses, Taxes, Debts and Transfer assets to heirs
Note the order that you will need to prioritize payments. The court places priority on payment of funeral, taxes and debts before any payments to heirs.
What you will need: A good accounting of all assets, debts and likely tax liability. The executor is responsible (personally) to ensure that all attempts are made to pay funeral expenses and taxes.
When would you need an attorney: If you don’t have enough money to pay for all of the estate expenses, particularly the taxes. I would STRONGLY advise seeking counsel if the estate is insolvent (more debts than assets).
5) Tell the court what you have done and close the estate
This is when you report to the court and show proof that you have done everything needed to close the estate.
What you will need: Good documentation of what you have done and the court will provide you with a template to use to report your actions.
When would you need an attorney: We recommend that at this point everyone should consult with an attorney to review your taken actions. Although not necessary, it is wise to have an expert’s eye on your actions to avoid any costly (personally to you) mistakes.
As you can see there is no clear answer to if you need an attorney to probate a will, rather certain situations that come up when an attorney is most definitely recommended. I like to think of this as going to the doctor… Would you pay your doctor to fill out the insurance intake form? NO! You pay them for their medical expertise. Same goes for an attorney, much of probate is simply filling out forms. Save time and money with our EZ-Probate process and leave the actual legal questions if they arise for the attorney.
Suggested further readings
FreeAdvice: Can I handle probate without a lawyer?
LegalZoom: Do I Need a Lawyer to Probate a Will?