Tools of the Trade

Top Ten Tips for Probate Paralegals
guest author: Trevor J. Weston

Introduction: Great Probate practices usually consist of well-organized teams consisting of members whose skill sets complement each other. When reaching their full potential, these teams manage multiple decedent's estates, guardianships, conservatorships, probate litigation matters, at one time. This work requires organization and client management done in well thought out systems developed by the team members. These systems are constantly being improved upon so as to provide the best possible service to the clients. The following are ten tips that will help lead you to some ideas to make your systems run even better.

Tip 1: Calendar - A probate practice runs based upon a calendar of dates related to wills and court filings and/or various required notices. All probate files should have a clear and concise calendaring system complete with reminders to avoid missing deadlines. Many courts send out "notices of deficiency" when deadlines are missed. However, this makes for the uncomfortable conversation with a client about why they are "deficient." It is always better to avoid this all together.

Tip 2: Forms - Probate is a form driven practice. Of course it is important to be familiar with the forms but there are two additional pieces of advice paralegals should consider. First, have the forms "at the ready." If needed, the forms required to open a guardianship or a decedent's estate should be available in electronic form within seconds. Save them to an accessible file so they are always ready in a flash. Second, each form has a Court Rule and statute listed on the bottom of the document which provides the legal basis for the information required in filling out the form. Read and become intimately familiar with these rules. This information/knowledge is what makes good assistants great.

Tip 3: Scheduling - Find out when your attorney likes to have meetings scheduled and when he or she does not. Some people like all meetings at certain times of the day if possible. Some people don’t like meeting late on Fridays or early on Mondays, or when regular court conflicts would occur. Also, if possible, it is the best practice to email or call all clients with a meeting reminder the day before the meeting (or the week before) so as to avoid wasted scheduled time for everyone.

Tip 4: Court Rules - Repeated from aboveā€¦Read and become intimately familiar with the Court Rules. This information/knowledge is what makes good assistants great.

Tip 5: Court Personnel - Sometimes the facts as they present themselves in your case do not fall squarely into what the Court Rules or statutes says should be done. In these situations, it is highly beneficial to be able to contact someone at the court, most likely a staffer in the clerk's office who can potentially lead you down the right path. Be nice to these people! If you are ever at the courthouse to file something, introduce yourself. Thank them for always being helpful. Having someone on the "inside" that can provide information on how to file something properly is very valuable.

Tip 6: No Excuses - Mistakes will be made. There are too many opportunities to make them for it not to happen eventually. Take responsibility and come up with a way to avoid it in the future. Your attorneys should have the same approach.

Tip 7: Be Pro-Active - It is very helpful and appreciated when the next steps in an estate are prepared and put in front of the attorney to review without having been asked to do it. Every estate is a series of steps to be taken until everything is finished. Some steps are easier than others. Proactively working towards getting the steps accomplished rather than reactively working on items that are due makes everyone, including clients, happier.

Tip 8: Proofread - Attorneys sell intangible services for a high price. Details and consistency matter. Whenever there is an example of someone not paying close enough attention to make sure that verbs agree or names are spelled right, there is a loss of confidence from the client. Enough of this occurring will destroy a law practice.

Tip 9: Proofs of Service - Whenever an attorney goes to court for any probate hearing, make sure he or she has a copy of the proof of service clipped to the front of the file. If there are multiple proofs, make sure you have them all. Even if they have previously been filed with the court, send a copy with the attorney. This might be the most important practice tip related to probate litigation.

Tip 10: Files - Regularly used files can get messy, especially ones taken to court. Attorneys are terrific at making a mess of a file and horrible at cleaning them up. Make it a habit to clean them up whenever you work on them. It will be much appreciated.

Hopefully you can integrate these tips into your practice. If there is ever any way I can help you or your practice, or you have any questions about the ideas addressed herein, please do not hesitate to give me a call. Trevor Weston, Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC - 248-785-4736


Trevor J. Weston is a partner with the firm Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC, in Birmingham, Michigan. Mr. Weston has been practicing law for more than ten years and focuses his practice on the areas of estate planning, probate and estate administration as well as the general litigation needs of his firm's clients. He is admitted to practice in all Michigan state courts, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, as well as the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Weston is a member of the State Bar of Michigan, Oakland County Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association for the Eastern District of Michigan, and Michigan Defense Trial Counsel, as well as the estate planning sections of the State Bar of Michigan and Oakland County Bar Association. He graduated with his B.A. degree from Hope College in Holland, Michigan and earned his J.D. degree from Michigan State University College of Law.

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