Many people ask us if they really need a lawyer in order to handle a probate estate. The short answer is that it isn't strictly necessary, but keep in mind that if you decide to go it alone, you are taking on some risks.
First, know that you will need to do your homework.The Court expects you to either know what you’re doing or to figure it out before you file any document. If you do something that costs the other heirs or creditors of the estate money, you will often be held personally liable for those mistakes (which means they can sue you for your personal assets to get their money back). Therefore, it is up to you to carefully research every step of the process and make sure to not pay any claims until you are sure you understand their order of priority.
The Court staff might give you advice, but they are not attorneys and it is up to you to verify any information they give you. While they generally do an excellent job, we have seen cases where they have, innocently told someone to file forms in a way that ends up costing the estate money. Just so you know, you cannot hold the court staff liable if you file documents in the wrong way, even if what you did was based on their advice.
In South Carolina, you will be filing documents over a period that usually lasts at least eight months. During that time, you will need to manage the estate assets, handle disputes among heirs, decide how or if people making claims against the estate need to be paid, and handling some basic accounting work and tax filings. In estates with enough liquid assets, you should also be responsibly investing the money. It is a lot of work, and it will take up a good amount of your free time, especially if you’re already working full-time and have a family you like to spend time with. It can also put a lot of stress on relationships if you and one of the other heirs (likely your siblings or other family members) don’t see something the same way.
On the other hand, South Carolina has a statute which authorizes you to take a percentage of the probate estate as compensation in most cases. So, while there is a lot of work involved, you will generally be compensated for that work.
A good estate attorney, on the other hand, will take care of all of the paperwork, let you know what you need to do with the money and which claims should or should not be paid, and will generally be there to answer any questions that come up throughout the process. They can also be a mediator that listens to the concerns of all of the heirs and helps to explain to them how the process is going to work and, in cases of conflict, can try to come to peaceful resolutions that avoid the tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and multiple hearings that many estate disputes require.
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, feel free to give us a call to speak with an attorney about your situation or, if you just want some extra information on things to look out for, order a copy of our FREE book, The Top Ten Most Common Mistakes Personal Representatives Make and How to Avoid Them.